August 01, 2009
Alan Weisman: The World Without Us

Alan Weisman's excellent book The World Without Us engages in the thought experiment of asking how the world would change if humans all suddenly died off or disappeared for some reason. If you think you know the answer from watching The History Channel's Life After People TV series, well, TV can't do the question justice. The amount of information in a good book is much greater and Weisman has definitely written a good book.

The book explores many more facets of the departure of humanity and does an especially excellent job of explaining the ecological effects of humanity's end. The most notable aspect of the book is its exploration of humanity's impacts of ecosystems. Our impacts are probably far greater than most of you imagine. I was surprised on some points and I read (and post) a lot on species extinction and habitat loss. Think you've seen natural reef life in underwater TV show documentaries? Unless you saw a show on Kingman Reef you've seen only very pale shadows of what a real natural reef looks like. The amount of biomass around reefs today is a small fraction of what they looked like a few hundred years ago. (and can anyone point to reefs as unsullied as Kingman?)

In order to explain to what the world will be like without humans Weisman has to explain what the world used to be like. The reefs are just one example of how different the world used to look before the human imprint grew so large. For political reasons a forest in Poland has been little disturbed for hundreds of years. Weisman starts the book with a description of how that forest differs from almost any other forest you may have visited. Also, the Korean DMZ provides a refuge for species that might by now otherwise be extinct. These accidental nature preserves give us an idea of just how much we humans have changed the world.

Weisman's book covers how long homes, skyscrapers, and assorted other products of civilization will last. Biological life forms do much (I get the impression most) of the damage. The sections of the book about decay of our creations are humbling about our accomplishments to date. While we like to think our decisions and our work matter for more than just the moment and that we create enduring legacies the book makes clear that almost everything we do is pretty ephemeral. devices built from noble metals (e.g. gold, silver, platinum, palladium) will last the longest. Copper-based sculptures and other copper-based structures will far outlast steel structures. Plastics will last because no organisms have evolved the ability to break them down - yet.

Many of our longer lasting creations were done by more primitive humans hundreds and thousands of years ago. Ancient underground cave modifications last longer than almost any above ground structure. One reason why: far less life can grow underground. Vines, weeds, and trees will rip apart what we do on the surface because the plants are powered by sunshine. But below the surface plants have far less energy to work with.

One of the thoughts I kept having while reading the book was whether we build using cost effective materials. Roofs can be (and have been) built to last centuries. Should we use more enduring materials and designs? I suspect greater attention to durability could boost return on investment in structures.

Another recurring thought: We really ought to build more resilience and fail safety into our infrastructure. We are all just one solar Carrington event away from massive starvation and collapse lasting months. While I'm generally a supporter of nuclear power (because it pollutes less and has a smaller footprint on ecosystems) I am disturbed to read in Weisman's book what happens to nuclear reactors after a few weeks of no humans to attend to them. These reactors ought to have better passive failure designs. What if a Carrington Event broke down delivery of fuel for powering water pumps? The picture painted is not pretty.

I recommend this book. I could not read it all the way through in a couple of days mostly because it tells a tragic tale. But I did keep going back to it because it tells a tale we should all hear.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 August 01 08:07 PM  Trends Habitat Loss

Pace said at August 1, 2009 8:39 PM:

Like the Nat Geo / History Channel Shows

Engineer-Poet said at August 1, 2009 8:40 PM:

By "nuclear reactors", I am assuming you mean light-water reactors using oxide fuel.  Neither pebble-bed reactors nor molten-salt reactors would have the same issues.

Randall Parker said at August 1, 2009 8:47 PM:


Have you read the book? I've watched the shows. I've read the book. The book seems way better to me.

razib said at August 1, 2009 9:43 PM:

tx for the review. i suspect our tastes align so i'll definitely check this one out now, i was curious in the bookstore but thought it was another ecofreak screed....

Fat Man said at August 2, 2009 5:43 AM:

A misanthrope's wet dream. Do human creations endure? Of course not, read Shelly's "Ozymandias", or the Bible. There is nobody here but us. Our only responsibility is the health and welfare of humanity. "Salus Populi Lex Supremus Esto".

Theo Richel said at August 2, 2009 1:38 PM:

I just do not understand: why would I prefer a world without me? Please explain. I can understand that other species would thrive when I am not there, but why would that be better? For whom? Why is it preferable to please other species instead of the human species. I really do not understand. Are you an alien?

I am not joking, not being polemic... why is a world without humans this preferable?

Randall Parker said at August 2, 2009 2:10 PM:


Explain what you imagine I said that made you ask this question. Put to specific sentences I said and then show me your reasoning that led you to ask this question. Tight logic is appreciated here.

Randall Parker said at August 2, 2009 2:13 PM:

Fat Man,

Weisman isn't a misanthrope. He really likes humans. Read his book. His affection for them comes out. His acknowledgments show this especially.

You feel responsible for the rest of humanity? Really? What are you doing with this feeling of responsibility?

Strawmen are only appealing to me in the Wizard Of Oz.

David Govett said at August 2, 2009 2:29 PM:

I skimmed rather than read the book, because the author seemed to desire the destruction of humanity, which was off-putting.

Randall Parker said at August 2, 2009 2:54 PM:

David Govett,

No, Weisman does not wish to see the destruction of humanity. Point me to something in the book which leads you to believe such a thing.

Kudzu Bob said at August 2, 2009 7:10 PM:

Haven't even seen the TV series, much less read the book, so my knowledge--if that is the right word--of Life After People/The World Without Us is strictly second-hand. I gather that the author assumes that Homo Sap abruptly disappears from the planet, as if Raptured into Heaven by Jesus or beamed aboard the Mothership or whatever, but leaves the planet reasonably intact.

The reality of human extinction would probably be a lot messier than that. When tenants get evicted from their home they often trash the place first, as any landlord can tell you.

Read Cormac McCarthy's awesome "The Road," which takes place during an unnamed catastrophe that is probably a nuclear winter, for what is probably a more grimly realistic take on humanity's end. It's the best end-of-the-world novel anybody anywhere ever wrote. In fact, "The Road" is simply one of the finest works of American fiction of the last quarter-century.

Randall Parker said at August 2, 2009 9:40 PM:

Kudzu Bob,

The point of the book is not how the human species will come to an end. I see two points:

- Show us how much we have changed our environment. Pollution, species extinctions, and other changes are discussed very knowledgeably. He spent a lot of time with a lot of scientists in many research specialties in order to write this book.

- Show us how dependent our products of civilization are on our continual maintenance of all that we've built. I found some of the vulnerabilities we have to be disturbing. As I mention above, a nuclear power plant shouldn't depend on continual human presence to avoid a melt down.

Kudzu Bob said at August 2, 2009 10:17 PM:

I suppose I'll have to read Weisman's book. Along those same lines, George R. Stewart's rather good 1949 novel, "Earth Abides," in which a plague wipes out virtually all the human race, also deals with how the absence of people would change the face of the planet. (As you may have guessed, I'm a sucker for end-of-the-world stories.)

sestamibi said at August 2, 2009 11:12 PM:

Yawn. Nothing new to see here, folks.

rob said at August 3, 2009 7:02 AM:

Sestamibi, I loved After Man when I was a kid. Dixon has another book & short tv series The Future is Wild, also fun.

After Man is about evolution, Wolrd without Us is (largely) about maintenance. What would happen to things if we stopped fixing and maintaining them? Solely by accident, it gives a bit of insight into the consequences of present-oriented thinking and short-sited governments, like post-colonial Africa. The built environment just doesn't work very long without near-constant tweaking.

Fat Man said at August 4, 2009 9:01 PM:

Our only responsibility is the health and welfare of humanity. "Salus Populi Lex Supremus Esto".

The first word was "Our".

As for my contribution, I am campaigning against ecologists and other socialists.

Randall Parker said at August 4, 2009 9:17 PM:

Fat Man,

But those ecologists and socialists are part of humanity, right? So the responsibility that you have decided to take on (for reasons unclear to me) extends to them. You need to force them to act against what they perceive as their interests - for their own good of course.

Now me, I do not feel that sense of responsibility. I think it is a figment of some people's imaginations.

As for ecologists: We really do very strongly depend on a hugely complex ecosystem. People who accept this fact seem wiser to me than people who try to deny it.

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