The World Without Us

In 2005, journalist Alan Weisman published in Discover magazine an article titled “Earth Without People,” in which he speculated on what might happen to the structures supporting human civilization if the humans who built and maintain them were suddenly to vanish. In researching the article, however, he discovered there was far more material than he could useenough, in fact, for a whole book, and so he began work on The World Without Us. In the book’s brief introduction, he addresses and dismisses the nagging issue of how such a human disappearance might occur. Among the means he suggests are “a Homo sapiens-specific virusnatural or diabolically nano-engineered,” “some misanthropic evil wizard,” or even that “Jesus or space aliens rapture us away, either to our heavenly glory or to a zoo somewhere across the galaxy.” His point, of course, is that, though people may be troubled by the specter of the sudden departure of their entire species, in the end, the means by which people might vanish from the planet makes no difference to the elaborate thought experiment that follows. What matters is merely that readers of the book accept its initial premise: Humans are here one day and gone the next.

Weisman is deeply fascinated by the natural world, and it is there that The World Without Us begins, in Poland and Belarus’s Biaowiea Puszcza, the last old-growth primeval forest in Europe. Only a tiny fragment remains of this forest, which once swathed large sections of the continent, and Weisman ponders the question of to what degree, given sufficient time without human interferencesay, five hundred yearsthe old forest might return. In a later chapter, the author asks a similar question about the potential for reforestation in Africa, were the agricultural lands that now fragment the continent left untended for a few generations. Despite the tantalizing suggestion of these chapters, however, this is not a book that dwells on those portions of the planet still relatively untouched by human endeavor, nor does it suggest that a post-human world would closely resemble the prehuman one. Rather, the majority of the book takes a hard look at those parts of Earth people now inhabit, stripped suddenly of them. Much of what it reveals, therefore, revolves around what would become of human artifacts, from plastic bags to skyscrapers.

Perhaps the single artifact that carries the most emotional weight for people is their houses, so Weisman briefly explains how relatively quickly all the houses on the planet would dissolve were it not for the constant maintenance their owners bestow upon them. From here, he moves on to the single most discussed chapter in the book, in which he describes the process by which naturealbeit a nature changed by now-absent humanitywould reclaim New York City. Weisman chooses New York for his focus because, as he writes, its “sheer titanic presence resists efforts to picture it wasting away,” but wasting away is precisely what is described, beginning with the flooding of subway tunnels that would relatively quickly undermine the foundations of roads and buildings above, even while cycles of freezing and thawing, unmitigated by human-made heat sources, would weaken these structures still further. Meanwhile, as centuries of toxins slowly flushed out of the soil, native plants would return in some numbers, but probably not sufficient to hold their own against an invasion of exotic plant species escaping from gardens and parks. Coyotes and bears would be among the original fauna able to return and take up residence in a disintegrating Manhattan. Interestingly, rats and roaches, which seem to so many city dwellers the most hearty of species, would not fare so well. As Weisman points out, it is people’s refuse and central heating that allow these creatures to thrive now; soon after humankind’s departure, their numbers would plummet to the brink of extinction in New York’s harsh climate.

Leaving the city behind, later chapters of the book look to other evidence of human habitation, some of which would evaporate more readily than others, but none of which would fail to leave behind evidence of...

(The entire section is 1709 words.)