The World Without Us (Alan Weisman)

  The World Without UsThe World Without Us by Alan Weisman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recommended for: anyone interested in our current environmental challenges.

From Goodreads: "A penetrating, page-turning take on how our planet would respond if humans simply disappeared, from five minutes later to millions of years. Most contemporary books about the environment end up being jeremiads. They may sing the praises of the natural world, but mostly to draw attention to the ways we are destroying it. The goal is to inspire social change, but that does not always result in creative or compelling prose. How do you avoid putting readers to sleep with yet another alarming tale when you're dealing with a subject that truly is alarming? One of the many virtues of this book is that it finds a brilliantly creative solution to this problem."

First, the cover. It's a gorgeous cover. Please, take a moment to look at that cover.

Now, thoughts. I loved this book. It's been on my to-read list for a while, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. Alan Weisman's a journalist, so it stands to reason that he'd be a good writer, but I've been disappointed before. Thankfully, Weisman can carry a book.

The World Without Us takes a familiar issue (the havoc humans are wreaking on the environment) and comes at it from a completely different angle: What would happen if all humans disappeared from Earth simultaneously? How would ecosystems recover? In attempting to answer this question, Weisman takes us from the Panama Canal to nuclear power plants to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, illuminating in each case the effect humans have had on their surroundings. Some places, he posits, will survive and flourish quickly after humans have gone. Others will not, due to unavoidable nuclear power plant meltdowns, or the enormous amount of plastic that now swirls, harmful even at the microscopic level, in the oceans. In any event, Weisman's hypotheses are scientifically sound and plausible, and his engaging prose makes The World Without Us a creative and engrossing read.

This is a great book to read in chunks. Although there is an arc to the book, Weisman has divided his argument into several self-contained chapters, each on a different location and issue, so it's easy to read a chapter and set the book down again. I was particularly struck by the chapter on plastic in the oceans, and how very long (essentially forever) plastic retains its dangerous form. The other section that really stood out to me was about the Demilitarized Zone in Korea, and the unexpected animal haven that has arisen from a dead zone where humans fear to walk. (Endangered animals have returned to this suddenly human-free zone between North and South Korea, finding a home for themselves there. Some have even claimed to have seen the Siberian Tiger in the DMZ, though this is unconfirmed.)

I left The World Without Us saddened by humanity on Earth today. Many of the things I learned from this book are probably already known to the ardent environmentalist, but I highly recommend this book for what it is: an imaginative look at our environmental problems, told engagingly, for an audience of any with a casual interest in the subject. (Which really should be everyone.)

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