The World Without Us

Alan Weisman

Picador

0312427905

9780312427900

Trade Paperback

432 Pages

$17.00

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A National Book Critics Circle Award FinalistA Time Magazine Best Book of the YearAn Orion Book Award FinalistEntertainment Weekly #1 Nonfiction Book of 2007 In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman offers an original approach to questions of humanity’s impact on the planet: he asks us to envision our Earth, without us. Weisman explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence; which everyday items may become immortalized as fossils; how copper pipes and wiring would be crushed into mere seams of reddish rock; why some of our earliest buildings might be the last architecture left; and how plastic, bronze sculpture, radio waves, and some man-made molecules may be our most lasting gifts to the universe. The World Without Us reveals how, just days after humans disappear, floods in New York’s subways would start eroding the city’s foundations, and how, as the world’s cities crumble, asphalt jungles would give way to real ones. It describes the distinct ways that organic and chemically treated farms would revert to wild, how billions more birds would flourish, and how cockroaches in unheated cities would perish without us. Drawing on the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, art conservators, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, religious leaders from rabbis to the Dali Lama, and paleontologists—who describe a prehuman world inhabited by megafauna like giant sloths that stood taller than mammoths—Weisman illustrates what the planet might be like today, if not for us. From places already devoid of humans (a last fragment of primeval European forest; the Korean DMZ; Chernobyl), Weisman reveals Earth’s tremendous capacity for self-healing. As he shows which human devastations are indelible, and which examples of our highest art and culture would endure longest, Weisman’s narrative ultimately drives toward a radical but persuasive solution that needn't depend on our demise. In posing a provocative concept with gravity in a highly readable presentation, it looks deeply at our effects on the planet in a way that no other book has.  The World Without Us is also available on CD as an unabridged audiobook.  Please email academic@macmillan.com for more information.

REVIEWS

Praise for The World Without Us

"In his morbidly fascinating nonfiction eco-thriller, The World Without Us, Weisman imagines what would happen if the earth's most invasive species—ourselves—were suddenly and completely wiped out . . . Weisman turns the destruction of our civilization and the subsequent rewilding of the planet into a . . . slow-motion disaster spectacular and feel-good movie rolled into one . . . Weisman travels from Europe's last remnant of primeval forest to the horse latitudes of the Pacific, interviewing everyone from evolutionary biologists and materials scientists to archaeologists and art conservators in his effort to sketch out the planet's post-human future . . . Weisman knows from the work of environmental historians that humans have been shaping the natural world since long before the industrial age. His inner Deep Ecologist may dream of Earth saying good riddance to us, but he finds some causes for hope amid the general run of man-bites-planet bad news . . . In the end, it's the cold facts and cooler heads that drive Weisman's cautionary message powerfully home. When it comes to mass extinctions, one expert tells him, ‘the only real prediction you can make is that life will go on. And that it will be interesting.'"—Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times Book Review
 
“Teasing out the consequences of a simple thought experiment—what would happen if the human species were suddenly extinguished—Weisman has written a sort of pop-science ghost story, in which the whole earth is the haunted house. Among the highlights: with pumps not working, the New York City subways would fill with water within days, while weeds and then trees would retake the buckled streets and wild predators would ravage the domesticated dogs. Texas's unattended petrochemical complexes might ignite, scattering hydrogen cyanide to the winds—a ‘mini chemical nuclear winter.’ After thousands of years, the Chunnel, rubber tires, and more than a billion tons of plastic might remain, but eventually a polymer-eating microbe could evolve, and, with the spectacular return of fish and bird populations, the earth might revert to Eden.”—The New Yorker

“Traveling down many different avenues of scientific research, Alan Weisman postulates the complete disappearance of mankind from planet Earth . . . By his estimate most of our leavings would rot and crumble; much of our damage would take eons to undo . . . Very early in the book Mr. Weisman makes his argument personal by describing how a house would fall apart . . . As with many of the book's other conclusions, this one is accompanied by a hint of unseemly glee. The more elaborately Mr. Weisman paints a worst possible outcome, the better he has made his case. And the more triumphant he sounds . . . It is one thing to imagine one house with a leaking roof, burgeoning mold, rusting nails, broken windows and small animals gnawing on the drywall. But this book hypothesizes more avidly about decay on a grander scale . . . This book's global-scale dismay about humanity's environmental impact is its most important theme. But it's Mr. Weisman’s more marginal facts that give The World Without Us so much curiosity value . . . Mr. Weisman covers a huge amount of terrain. His research is prodigious and impressive. So is his persistence . . . The World Without Us has an arid, plain, what-if style and an air of relentless foreboding.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"In this extended thought experiment, Weisman does not specify exactly what finishes off Homo sapiens; instead he simply assumes the abrupt disappearance of our species and projects the sequence of events that would most likely occur in the years, decades and centuries afterward. According to Weisman, large parts of our physical infrastructure would begin to crumble almost immediately. Without street cleaners and road crews, our grand boulevards and superhighways would start to crack and buckle in a matter of months. Over the following decades many houses and office buildings would collapse, but some ordinary items would resist decay for an extraordinarily long time. Stainless-steel pots, for example, could last for millennia, especially if they were buried in the weed-covered mounds that used to be our kitchens. And certain common plastics might remain intact for hundreds of thousands of years; they would not break down until microbes evolved the ability to consume them."—Scientific American

"Weisman embarks on a global journey that takes him from Poland's primordial forests to Korea's DMZ. He presents plenty of jaw-dropping facts that illuminate our impact on the Earth's biosphere, but his real revelation is how quickly the natural world could recover—if given the chance."—Seed magazine

“In The World Without Us, this pleasantly morbid parlor game becomes a grandly entertaining (and refreshingly unscreechy) study of the ways we meddling humans have perturbed our planet and of how blithely the earth would shrug off our departure.”—Time

“Weisman's engrossing depiction of what would happen to the planet if humans vanished overnight is the kind of sensationalism we love—there's plenty of context on ecology, global warming, and our own evolutionary past.”—New York magazine

“The book boasts an amazingly imaginative conceit that manages to tap into underlying fears and subtly inspire us to consider our interaction with the planet.”—The Washington Post

The World Without Us taps into one of our deepest, if only furtively acknowledged, pleasures: imagining destruction. Just as Tom Sawyer sneaked deliciously into his own funeral, we gobble up Weisman's anecdotes about the decay and dissolution of everything human. It also appeals to our love of looking in the cosmic rearview mirror: Like A Christmas Carol or It's a Wonderful Life, it sucks us in with a vision of what is, what has been and what is yet to come. The book is addictive . . . One of the reasons The World Without Us is so compelling is that Weisman, a veteran journalist, has a keen eye for locations and stories that are at once crucial and offbeat . . . Weisman's vivid, well-written accounts of the places he goes and the people he meets make his meandering narrative as colorful and exotic as a travelogue.”—Gary Kamiya, Salon

“The extinction of humankind is a grim topic. Yet in The World Without Us, journalist Alan Weisman invokes this ancient specter as the jumping-off point for a refreshing, and oddly hopeful, look at the fate of the environment.”—BusinessWeek

“Weisman's intriguing thought experiment is to ask what would happen if the rest of the Earth was similarly evacuated—not by a nuclear holocaust or natural disaster, but by whisking people off in spaceships, or killing them with a virus that spares the rest of the biosphere.”—Jerry Adler, Newsweek

“An on-the-ground investigation of places and developments rarely reported. He discusses, for example, new understanding of the Amazon rain forest, which, far from being primeval, was the site of an extensive pre-Columbian civilization, depopulated by disease brought from Europe and overgrown almost instantly. In the end, Weisman's book transcends gimmickry to attain a kind of brilliance—paradoxically by adhering rigorously to its establishing premise . . . One of the most satisfying environmental books of recent memory, one devoid of self-righteousness, alarmism or tiresome doomsaying.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“One of this year's most fascinating reads is The World Without Us, both for what it says and for the reactions to it . . . The World Without Us has become that rarity—a science best seller. In the context of global warming, it's not surprising that the political knives are out . . . I relished The World Without Us for its very audacity in jettisoning the anthropomorphic point-of-view.”—The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“This is one of the grandest thought experiments of our time, a tremendous feat of imaginative reporting!”—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Deep Economy

“The imaginative power of The World Without Us is compulsive and nearly hypnotic—make sure you have time to be kidnapped into Alan Weisman’s alternative world before you sit down with the book, because you won’t soon return. This is a text that has a chance to change people, and so make a real difference for the planet.”—Charles Wohlforth, author of Los Angeles Times Book Prize-winning The Whale and the Supercomputer

“Alan Weisman offers us a sketch of where we stand as a species that is both illuminating and terrifying. His tone is conversational and his affection for both Earth and humanity transparent.”—Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams

“An exacting account of the processes by which things fall apart. The scope is breathtaking . . . the clarity and lyricism of the writing itself left me with repeated gasps of recognition about the human condition. I believe it will be a classic.”—Dennis Covington, author of National Book Award finalist Salvation on Sand Mountain

“Fascinating, mordant, deeply intelligent, and beautifully written, The World Without Us depicts the spectacle of humanity's impact on the planet Earth in tragically poignant terms that go far beyond the dry dictates of science. This is a very important book for a species playing games with its own destiny.”—James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency

“Given the burgeoning human population and the phenomenal reach of our technologies, humankind has literally become a force of nature. We are inadvertently changing the climate; altering, polluting, and eradicating ecosystems; and driving evolution as other organisms struggle to adapt to a new human-made world. So what would happen if humankind suddenly vanished? Journalist Weisman, author of An Echo in My Blood (1999), traveled the world to consult with experts and visit key sites, and his findings are arresting to say the least. He learned that without constant vigilance, New York's subways would immediately flood, and Houston's complex 'petroscape' would spectacularly self-destruct. Weisman visits an abandoned resort on the coast of Cyprus and marvels over nature's ready reclamation. Marine biologists share sobering information about the staggering amount of plastic particles in ocean waters as well as vast floating islands of trash. Weisman is a thoroughly engaging and clarion writer fueled by curiosity and determined to cast light rather than spread despair. His superbly well researched and skillfully crafted stop-you-in-your-tracks report stresses the underappreciated fact that humankind's actions create a ripple effect across the web of life. As for the question of what would endure in our absence, Weisman lists a 'redesigned atmosphere,' astronomical amounts of plastic and automobile tires, nuclear waste and other inorganic poisons, and, eerily, the radio waves that will carry our television broadcasts through the universe for all time.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“If a virulent virus—or even the Rapture—depopulated Earth overnight, how long before all trace of humankind vanished? That's the provocative, and occasionally puckish, question posed by Weisman in this imaginative hybrid of solid science reporting and morbid speculation. Days after our disappearance, pumps keeping Manhattan's subways dry would fail, tunnels would flood, soil under streets would sluice away and the foundations of towering skyscrapers built to last for centuries would start to crumble. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, anything made of bronze might survive in recognizable form for millions of years—along with one billion pounds of degraded but almost indestructible plastics manufactured since the mid-20th century. Meanwhile, land freed from mankind's environmentally poisonous footprint would quickly reconstitute itself, as in Chernobyl, where animal life has returned after 1986's deadly radiation leak, and in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, a refuge since 1953 for the almost-extinct goral mountain goat and Amur leopard. From a patch of primeval forest in Poland to monumental underground villages in Turkey, Weisman's enthralling tour of the world of tomorrow explores what little will remain of ancient times while anticipating, often poetically, what a planet without us would be like.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads

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BOOK EXCERPTS

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
A Lingering Scent of Eden
You may never have heard of the Bialowieza Puszcza. But if you were raised somewhere in the temperate swathe that crosses much of North America, Japan, Korea, Russia, several former Soviet republics, parts of China, Turkey, and Eastern and Western Europe—including the British Isles—something within you remembers it. If instead you were born to tundra or desert,subtropics or tropics, pampas or savannas, there are still places on Earth kindred to this puszcza to stir your memory, too. Puszcza, an old Polish word, means forest primeval. Straddling
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MEDIA

Watch

  • Alan Weisman, Author of The World Without Us

    Watch this amazing demonstration of what will happen to your house over the next 500 years when left to the forces of Mother Nature. Learn more about the post-human Earth in THE WORLD WITHOUT US, by Alan Weisman.

  • The World Without Us by Alan Weisman--Audiobook Excerpt

    Listen to this audiobook excerpt from Alan Weisman's book The World Without Us. If human beings disappeared instantaneously from the Earth, what would happen? How would the planet reclaim its surface? What creatures would emerge from the dark and swarm? How would our treasured structures--our tunnels, our bridges, our homes, our monuments--survive the unmitigated impact of a planet without our intervention?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Alan Weisman

  • Alan Weisman teaches international journalism at the University of Arizona. He is also an award-winning journalist whose reports have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Discover, and on NPR, among others. Formerly a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, he is now a senior radio producer for Homelands Productions.
  • Alan Weisman
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