Tuesday, November 27, 2007
books: the world without us
Alan Weisman's The World Without Us was born from a deceptively simple question: what would become of the world if all of humanity were to disappear? From that single premise comes what is arguably the finest work of nonfiction released in 2oo7, comprised of a series of surprisingly engrossing scientific articles. He starts with examining the fate of something so commonplace as our home without us (see these pictures of New Orleans' 9th Ward for an idea). Weisman then moves to the metropolis of New York City (after two days it immediately floods and fails), and then on to the farm, to our nuclear legacy, to the sea, our art and beyond.

His findings are sobering. In the chapter on nuclear energy, Weisman looks to the self-healing happening in post-nuclear Chernobyl when he writes that "typical human activity is more devastating to biodiversity and abundance of local flora and fauna than the worst nuclear power plant disaster," and after considering that since the human migration out of Africa and into the Americas and Australia we have left a trail of massive extinctions in our wake, it's easy to deduce that we've been a blight on the planet since our earliest hunter/gather days. But, of course, in many ways modern man is much worse.

I was absolutely terrified to read his chapter on plastics, which for me was the most startling part of the entire book. I knew that plastics don't break down, but I never really gave much thought to what happened to them beyond landfills. His description of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch - a garbage dump floating in the middle of the Pacific THE SIZE OF AFRICA - was thoroughly alarming. Comprised of 3 million tons of plastic, 80% of which "had originally been discarded on land...blown off garbage trucks or out of landfills, spilled from railroad shipping containers and washed down storm drains, sailed down rivers of wafted on the wind, and found its way to this widening gyre," this blight floats in the center of the ocean where it waits for evolution to create a bacteria capable of breaking it down.

(A dead albatross found full of plastic)

Needless to say, after reading up a bit more on polymers and nurdles I'm swearing off of plastic water bottles and buying my own canvas grocery bags.

I could go on (the fate of songbirds at the hands of powerlines, deforestation, feral cats and plate glass windows was also particularly disturbing to me), but I'm sure I've already depressed you enough. The funny thing is The World Without Us - although certainly grim - was also surprisingly hopeful. After all, history shows that despite our human arrogance we will eventually disappear, but our planet will adapt and move on, that "life will go on. And that it will interesting."

In sum, I recommend this book to everyone. In fact, (and at the risk of sounding preachy) it's an essential read.

Up Next: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

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Blogger Mary said...

Wow, that sounds like a really interesting read. I'll add it to my booklist.

Blogger Steve said...

Sounds interesting. 2007's been a good year for nonfiction Dibs on your copy whenever it comes available? I'll trade you for the new Steve Martin memoir if that'll sweeten the pot...

Blogger Mrs. White said...

Gah! As you can see, I've reposted the picture that originally didn't show since I've been totally blogtarded these past two days. However and now having seen it, I'm sure everyone is now wishing I didn't. (Sorry.)

Anyway yes, Steve, you may borrow. I was interested in that Steve Martin book so I'll certainly take it. I also want The Year of Living Biblically when you're through, FYI.

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