SCIENCE: THE ENVIRONMENT

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Reviewed by Michael Grunwald
Sunday, July 29, 2007

THE WORLD WITHOUT US

By Alan Weisman

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 324 pp. $24.95

If human beings vanished from the Earth, our ceramic pottery and bronze statues would last much longer than our wood-frame houses. New York's subways would be flooded within days; Lexington Avenue would be a river within decades. Head lice would go extinct, and predators would make short work of our doggies, but a lot of endangered fish and birds and trees would flourish in our absence. We endangered them, after all.

A diligent and intelligent science writer named Alan Weisman discovered all this while investigating what would happen to this planet if people suddenly disappeared. Now he has converted his thought experiment for Discover magazine into a deeply reported book called The World Without Us, and it's full of interesting facts. For example: The European starling spread like avian kudzu after some Shakespeare buff introduced every bird mentioned by the Bard into Central Park. The demilitarized (and therefore depopulated) zones of Korea and Cyprus have become undeclared wildlife sanctuaries; so have Chernobyl and abandoned forests in New England and Belarus. Almost every ounce of plastic that's ever been manufactured still lurks somewhere in our environment. And radio waves are forever, so extraterrestrials at the edge of the universe might be able to watch "I Love Lucy" reruns billions of years after we're gone. Who knew?

Also: Who cares?

Ultimately, The World Without Us is trivia masquerading as wisdom. By journeying around the world to interview biologists and paleontologists, engineers and curators, Zápara elders and Masai ecoguides, Weisman has done a remarkably thorough job of answering a question that doesn't particularly matter. Imagining the human footprint on a post-human planet might be fun for dormitory potheads who have already settled the questions of God's existence and Fergie's hotness, but it's not clear why the rest of us need this level of documentary evidence. It's nice to know that domesticated plants (like wheat) and animals (like horses) would be out-competed by their wild counterparts post-us, but it's not inherently important to know. If the larger point is that our domesticated plants and animals are not really natural, well, that we already know.

When Weisman does make larger points, they are achingly familiar. Yes, man is doing foolishly destructive things -- like warming the climate with carbon and tearing the peaks off mountains and littering the oceans with plastics -- that will have long-term consequences for the Earth. This no longer qualifies as news. And yes, nature and the Earth are resilient, while man and his works -- with exceptions such as Mount Rushmore, the caves of Cappadocia, and Styrofoam -- are fleeting. Ozymandias could have told us that. And while Weisman is an admirable reporter, his prose -- always lucid, sometimes elegant -- has an irritating look-ma-I'm-writing quality. This is how he describes one guy he meets: "His olive features bespeak Sicily; his voice is pure urban New Jersey." I think he's bespeaking of an "Italian-American." It's not an exotic species around Jersey.

For all its existential ruminations, this is basically an environmental book, an imaginative effort to make us think about our impact on the Earth. It reminds us: This is a nice Earth! It's going to be around for millions of years, and we're not, so let's stop littering it with nuclear reactors and plastic bags that will leave toxic messes long after we're gone! But as Weisman demonstrates, the Earth will do just fine without us. It's an excellent healer, and time -- especially geologic time -- is an even better one.

Actually, there's a much more compelling reason for us to stop despoiling the Earth and depleting its resources: If we don't, we might create that world without us. As Jared Diamond has shown, unsustainable civilizations tend to collapse; as countless environmental writers have shown, our gas-guzzling, water-wasting, plastic-producing civilization is not sustainable. This is an issue of policy and morality, not just theory.

Weisman knows this, but he believes that people don't like to hear about environmental destruction in those apocalyptic terms. It's too scary. He describes his ruminations as a non-threatening effort to change hearts and minds through indirection. If we imagine the world without us -- even though Weisman makes it sound as if the world could be better off without us -- we might start taking care of it. But just in case this philosophical bank shot proves insufficient, Weisman does offer one modest proposal in his final chapter, his single policy solution to all the planet's problems. And it's preposterous: "limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one." Sure, right after we ration air, outlaw war and limit teenage masturbation to once a week.

Even as a thought experiment, a one-child policy is a terrible idea, a draconian one-size-fits-all solution to a variety of complex problems. (In America, for starters, our problem is overconsumption, not overpopulation.) It's also exactly the kind of nature-first idea that makes environmentalism so threatening to so many people. Humanity's goal should be to limit our impact on the Earth, not to limit our presence on Earth. We don't have to do it for the Earth's sake; we should do it for our own sake. It's our home.

At one of those depressingly apocalyptic environmental conferences, I recently heard a speaker give the best argument I've ever heard for saving the Earth: "It's the only planet we know of that has chocolate." There probably wouldn't be chocolate in a world without us. And even if there were, it wouldn't do us much good. ·

Michael Grunwald, a senior correspondent at Time magazine, is the author of "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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