A Wilder World: a review of The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The rain has come and gone; you close your eyes and listen for birds. You hear one, maybe two, no—three distinct songs. And if it weren’t for those gas-guzzling metal canisters rumbling so indiscreetly by, you could be in The World Without Us, as Alan Weisman imagined it in his 2007 book. Weisman visits some of the most urbanized (New York City) and pristine (the forests of South America) sites on earth, as he explores our planet’s origins and imagines its future free of our domineering presence.

In thoughtful and intricate prose, Weisman takes us on a journey around the globe to show how our planet might react (or really, recover) if we were all to suddenly depart this pale blue dot. From the already progressing wild takeover at Chernobyl to the erasure of the Panama Canal, Weisman introduces us to our monumental, but fleeting legacies that barely manage to resist the oncoming wilderness. Such a detailed study of our planet could read like an encyclopedia, but in Weisman’s deft hands and diction, the story comes alive both tragically (“Eventually, coming full circle, we returned, so estranged from our origins that we enslaved blood cousins who stayed behind to maintain our birthright.”) and comically (“It was at least 10,000 years old, but unmistakably a turd.”).

Weisman finds inspiration for his version of “tomorrow-land” in the minds of scientists, engineers, and laborers around the world. In New York, he explores the Big Apple’s dismantling through the eyes of conservationists, engineers, and city transportation officials. Without the constant vigilance of the city’s workers, an overwhelming groundswell of suppressed water will deal the first blow, drowning the city’s legs. Repeated jabs from the freeze-thaw cycle will then slowly fatigue our man-made constructs, until skyscrapers begin to fall like dominoes and the city returns to its humble marshland beginnings. But it won’t ever be quite the same. It turns out that our most lasting fingerprints on this world may be those carried by the non-native species we’ve brought with us in our travels. Many of these species, including the invasive ailanthus trees in New York, will continue and even accelerate their hostile takeovers in our absence.

As someone who fancies himself environmentally conscious (though no crusader, by any means), I was amazed to learn the sheer magnitude of our effect on the natural world. The effects of plastics and their manufacture (e.g., the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) alone are enough to make me queasy. But I was heartened by the assurance that for all our might, we will be easily overcome by the natural world once we’re gone. This is not a book of advice on how to minimize your carbon footprint. Nor is it a story meant to scare you into conservationism. It is a far-reaching and thoughtful depiction of our sky-scraping effects on this planet; one that manages to inspire both caution and optimism.