Weisman, Alan. The World Without Us.

NY: St. Martin, 2007.

This fascinating thought experiment began as an article in Discover magazine and won several awards before being expanded here in equally engaging and thought-provoking fashion. The premise is simple: What if all human beings suddenly disappeared from the planet?

Not because of an asteroid strike or a nuclear war, but simply vanished. (Think “Rapture” or something.) How long would it take for the material remains of civilization to begin to crumble? Where would it happen first, and how? The answers may surprise you. For one thing, the classic “after the Apocalypse” movie image of the skeletal skyscrapers of Manhattan with newspapers blowing through the deserted streets must be replaced, realistically, by the flooding of New York’s subways (only a few feet away at the best of times), the consequent undermining of streets and building foundations, and the relatively rapid collapse of anything more than one or two stories high. But what happens to the Interstates? Copper pipes? Holiday Inns? How does abandoned farmland react to generations of chemical fertilizer and pesticides? What about when the seals decay in huge gasoline storage tanks? (Imagine all of the deserted harbor of Houston going up in a single, spectacular petrochemical explosion.)

Every chapter of the book is like that, based on shrewd guesses and thoughtful explanations supplied by a large number of experts the author interviewed. But the Earth, he believes, has the ability to heal itself eventually from the infestation of mankind. The forests would come back, population centers would become low mounds for alien archaeologists, and in only 10,000 years there might be very little sign left that we were ever here. You’d have to dig for surviving remains, since the increasingly toxic atmosphere would take care of most items left on the surface. And some of the oldest of Man’s constructions would turn out to last the longest. The Great Pyramid is probably good for another hundred centuries. Nice to know, actually.

Published in: on 20 November 2013 at 1:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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