i-002750ebee2a3d8d4df1c0c10f3b7f91-weisman.jpgAs 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.

Other bloggers review the book here, here and here. And the book has its own web site.

Weisman, Alan. 2007. The World Without Us. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 324 pp. ISBN 978-0-312-34729-1.

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  1. #1 JG
    August 4, 2007

    The link http://www.jornmark.se/places.aspx provides several well illustrated examples on what human constructions look like when they have been neglected for some years. Very illustrative!

  2. #2 JG
    August 4, 2007

    For a few hours I have waited for more comments on this subject. I think that archaeological perspectives might be a good foundation for a discussion about the development during the last millennium, leading to the present global situation.
    Let me formulate a challenge for an archaeological discussion based on a development from just one kind of artifacts, I mean the mills.
    Still about a millennium ago very much muscle power was needed for the production of flour. The invention of the mill changed it all drastically. Was this invention not the start of all later technological developments? Human and animal muscle power could be exchanged for other sources of power.

  3. #3 Martin R
    August 4, 2007

    Didn’t the Romans use hydro power?

  4. #4 JG
    August 4, 2007

    The Romans are more known for muscular slave-power, than for water power, as far as I know. And e.g. the screw of Arkimedes used muscle power to bring up water and not falling water to create energy. But maybe other readers can provide more information about this?

  5. #5 Monte Davis
    August 4, 2007

    Water-powered industry (including grain mills) in classical times: definitely yes, although there’s some argument about whether anyone in Europe had the more efficient “overshot” wheel before medieval times.


  6. #6 JG
    August 5, 2007

    OK, obviously watermills were invented about a millennium before they were really spread over Europe.

    Isn’t it interesting that it took such a long time before the big spread of the idea and realization in terms of building mills? Maybe no real need was identified, since there might have been considered that they had enough labour available?

    Why was it all changed later? The end of the tradition of keeping slaves?

  7. #7 Monte Davis
    August 9, 2007

    JG: Big questions. There are plenty of anomalies like the Antikythera device (astronomical clockwork from ancient Greece). We have a long way to go in understanding the cultural and economic elements that make the difference between a discovery or invention _per se_ and a widespread technology.

    I agree slavery is part of the answer, but too simplistic in itself: after all, the big mining operations where the Romans used water-powered machinery were also prime users of slave/prisoner labor.

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