Nerd Words: Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us

  • Share
  • Read Later

Sorry for the hiatus. The PS3 is cheaper now. OK, new business.

Last month I plugged this book gonzo-style, without actually having read it. Now I’ve read Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, and it turns out that in my total ignorance, I was right: I don’t think I’ve read a better non-fiction book this year. (Fiction honors so far this year, family members excepted, would have to go to Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End.) The World Without Us is a thought-experiment investigating what would become of the earth were humanity to softly and silently vanish away. What would become of our highways, our cities, our farms, our refineries (hint: boom), our precious plastic baubles? What starts as a morbid parlor game becomes a mesmerizing and grandly entertaining examination of how humanity has managed to perturb our little planet, and how blithely said planet will shrug us off when we’re gone.

Weisman plays it to the hilt. He writes like Malcolm Gladwell and John McPhee mashed together and set on fast-forward. I imagine Weisman’s mind as being something like Google Earth: it rolls effortlessly around the globe looking at spots — like Chernobyl, or the no-man’s-lands in Cyprus and Korea, or the forest preserves of darkest Poland and Belarus — that humanity has already managed to vanish from. He also rolls back in time, to when enterprising chimpoids first started re-engineering the earth, and of course we spend a lot of time in the far future, when the Great Wall has crumbled, and the atmosphere has rebalanced its CO2 load, and the Panama Canal has silted up, and humanity’s legacy takes the form of a thin geological stratum of copper, pressed flat by encroaching glaciers. Plus a whole lot of PCB’s, and several quadrillion plastic pellets known in the trade as “nurdles.” I guess the future really was plastics.

Oh, and Mount Rushmore lasts for a while. The Chunnel, too. And then — and this is the surprise ending — J.K. Rowling writes another Harry Potter book.

0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest