Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

I have a confession to make: I love the apocalypse. Not so much the event itself, or the events leading up to it, but what happens afterward. Any book that takes place after the end of the world - be it the immediate aftermath of the event, as in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or years afterwards, as in the world of The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen - always captures my attention.

Before you start thinking that I must be some sort of literary masochist, not all apocalyptic fiction (or nonfiction) is dark and hopeless. Most often, the appeal lies in the struggle that comes after; the pulling together (or apart) of individuals and groups, finding strength and hope in the face of utter catastrophe, and the odd comfort in seeing that even without society as we know it, the world does go on.

So what would happen if, suddenly and for no reason, all of humanity simply disappeared? What happens to our homes, our shopping malls, or our pets that would be left behind? That is the question that journalist Alan Weisman takes up in The World Without Us. As Weisman states in the first chapter, this is not a book about how we disappear, but what happens after we're gone.

In exploring what might happen without humanity, we also discover the long-lasting impact we have already had on our planet. Some impacts are as short-term as the buildings we live and work in, which in Weisman’s estimation would be consumed by the landscape in 200 or so years, whereas the plastic we created will remain in our environment for hundreds of thousands of years after we are gone. And what would happen to the nuclear power plants, the dams and reservoirs and the oil pipelines - all the things that require meticulous human attention - if those attentions suddenly ceased?

Weisman bases his book on scientific studies and observations from a variety of settings and locations. Some areas, such as the Korean DMZ, Chernobyl, or the small sliver of primeval forest on the border of Poland and Belarus called Białowieża Puszcza, show us how quickly and remarkably nature recovers and continues in the absence of immediate human intervention. Weisman also looks at what remains of the civilizations that have come before us, such as the underground cities beneath Cappadocia, Turkey, thought to be 8,000 to 9,000 years old.

While such a subject could easily become dry and uninteresting, taking the tone of yet another ecological doomsday lecture, Weisman artfully weaves the factual and hypothetical into an engaging and ultimately hopeful tale. Some passages, such as Weisman's description of the effect our lights, power lines and buildings have on the navigation of birds, border on the poetic. Other chapters take a sadder tone, particularly the sections that describe the possible fates of our pets. The World Without Us is a great read for anyone interested in the environment, history, or biology, or who are simply curious about the world be live in and the effect we humans have on it.

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The History Channel produced a television series that also took up the question of what might happen if humanity disappeared. Life After People uses CGI animation, along with interviews with biologists, engineers and other experts, to speed up time, allowing us to watch the gradual (and occasionally dramatic) destruction of the most iconic buildings and monuments humanity has created, such as the White House and the Sears Tower, as well as the future of our more mundane creations. The library caries the first season of the program, and you can watch video clips on the History Channel's website here: http://www.history.com/shows/life-after-people.

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Finally, for a vivid look at what happens when people abandon a city, Andrew Moore's Detroit Dissembled documents the slow disintegration of once-bustling areas of Detroit. Moore's photographs look inside abandoned factories, offices, schools and libraries. While humans do still occupy some of the abandoned areas (as evidenced by the proliferation of graffiti) the abject neglect of these structures is striking, especially as nature moves to consume them. The photos are part of a traveling exhibit, currently showing at the Akron (Ohio) Art Museum.

Happy (and hopeful) reading!

~Allison, Adult Services

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