Thursday, March 26, 2009

Without Us

Reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman is kind of like watching a merry-go-round as it circles. You see your friends or children go by every few minutes; you see empty animals go up and down; you can't quite focus your attention (or your camera).

OK, I'll explain this odd metaphor I just indulged in. Weisman covers so much varying material that the book is a little dizzying to read and moves in circles between the familiar and the unfamiliar. He uses some sources that I've read, and some of his material has appeared in the popular press. Other material is new to me.

The book begins with a simple question: what if humans were suddenly to disappear from the entire earth -- what would happen in the short term and in the long term. To answer this, the author tries to establish the facts of what's in place on earth. Cities. Nuclear power plants and nuclear waste storage facilities. Game reserves. Farms. Oil refineries. The Panama Canal. Public art works. Some of our monuments would go quietly. Others (especially the nuclear ones) would spread destruction.

Another question: has this already happened? Oh, yes. The famous Korean DMZ is an example. So is the area around Chernoble. Most interesting, the chapter titled "The World Without Farms" describes how abandoned agricultural areas have already shown what happens when we abandon our food baskets, as well as exploring how 200 years of developing chemical fertilizers have fed us and changed our environment. It's partly familiar, partly a strange way to look at things. But the human need for food has had a variety of influence on our surroundings, and this is one of the interesting though familiar themes of the book.

Weisman clearly, highlights human impact on the planet by seeing how our changes would endure despite our disappearance. A cautionary tale? Not exactly: the point is blurred by all the dizzying and swirling ideas. A minor distraction: his journalistic style means he tells you about the haircut and clothing style of seemingly every expert he interviews -- but that's a detail.

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