Bill McKibben calls “The World Without Us” “…one of the grandest thought experiments of our time…”. Take the world as we know it — all of our technology, our structures, our fabrics and copper pipes and fired brick — and leave it all alone to the ravages of nature. What would happen? And how soon would it happen?
A lot of what we’ve built would crumble pretty damn soon, according to author Alan Weisman. It turns out that just about everything about the infrastructure of our modern life is only kept spinning and standing through an astounding amount of effort that most of us (myself included) can comprehend only with the aid of a book like this one. I had no idea the amount of electricity and pumping it takes to keep the New York subway system from flooding in a matter of hours. I didn’t know that without workers to blow out the debris that can accumulate in the expansion joints of major bridges the power of heat expansion and contraction from subsequent cooling would shatter their massive pre-stressed, reinforced concrete spans in a very short time.
But not everything of us would vanish so quickly. We have labored hard to bring to the surface of our planet vast quantities of heavy metals that will take a very, very long time to migrate back underground. Our plastics and polymers will linger for millennia until bacteria finally evolve to eat them, or until they are driven underground by the forces of geology and melted into nothingness. The animal kingdom, if they take notice at all, will breath a sigh of relief and rapidly re-occupy abandoned urban landscapes.
The most satisfying (and compelling) parts of this book are the descriptions of just how the things most familiar to us will come apart. In this the author is clearly aided by talking to people who would know: the very engineers and scientists responsible for the creation and maintenance of these things. But there isn’t enough of that to fill an entire book, so the author takes us on side trips into the ecological history of our human presence on the planet. In this he takes a definite view which will be distasteful to those who think of the earth as our god-given garden to exploit. (Weisman even gives a few pages to describing one group that endorses the voluntary self-extinction of our species — an intriguing but, I think, flawed exercise in self-loathing and mis-placed hyper-morality).
Aside from the terribly sobering reality of just how powerful an effect a single living species has had on their home turf, I was also struck with a certain admiration for both the power of nature to return every molecule back into the materials box and the human knack for engineering ways to stave off that eventuality and make our pipes not rust and our houses not fall down around us (at least while we’re still living in them).
This book is such a fine collection of facts and perspective, that I can’t help but recommend it. It’s also a smooth read.