A Book That Imagines Life After People
“Oh my God! This is like every single disaster movie ever made, all rolled into one book!” was what a friend thought of one of my latest finds, which I had thrust into her hands. Not quite how I had looked at it, but I had to admit: She was absolutely correct.
The book I’m talking about is The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, and it explores what would happen to everything on planet Earth if humans were to vanish suddenly one day. This isn’t science fiction; the book is what is called ‘a thought experiment’ (meaning that you start your exploration on the basis of a thought, e.g. life after people), which makes it speculative. Having said that, Weisman, a journalist, makes certain that his speculations are as far from fiction as possible. And he does this by learning from the people who work hands-on on the things that make up our world today.
For instance: our homes. Suppose that suddenly, no one was around to maintain our homes. What would happen?
If you’ve ever seen a house that’s been abandoned for years, you’ve seen its crumbled bricks and displaced slabs of concrete. And you’ve seen small plants growing on what’s left of the roof and walls. Why does that happen? Weisman speaks to people who work in construction, and who work with water, to find out. He learns exactly what we suspect: that nature is stronger than anything humans can create. Once you’re no longer there to maintain your house, it simply crumbles away, thanks to insects, flying seed pods, water seepage. Entire cities could be wiped out in a very short time if humans weren’t around.
That goes for streets, too, and bridges, and underground metros and railway tracks and airports – anything man-made. And if you’re an environmentalist, you’ll be quite pleased to learn what Weisman found after all his research into the man-made: When there are no humans, wilderness returns.
To show what he means, Weisman writes about two places that have been so devastated by human activity that humans had no option but to desert them. The first is Chernobyl, an area in Ukraine, which suffered a disastrous nuclear plant accident in 1986. Thirty years later, the area is still not safe for humans — nuclear radiation affects all forms of life negatively — but somehow birds, animals and plant life are all thriving there.
The second place Weisman tells us about is the border between North and South Korea. Step into the Demilitarised Zone between the two Koreas and you will be shot from both sides. So there are no humans there – but more wildlife than can be seen in all of South Korea.
If nature swallows and transforms everything that humans created, when they are gone, will there be anything left to discover should alien archaeologists ever land on Earth? Any jewelry, say, or art; books, or anything beyond the odd human fossil?
Nope. Nothing of our homes, cities, means of transport, art, culture – life! – will remain.
Except for two things. The first is plastic. Plastic is so utterly unnatural than even nature doesn’t know what to do with it. And the second is anything made out of long-long-lasting natural material, such as stone or volcanic tuff. When the alien archaeologists land, they will have some art to see and a place to stay after all: Mount Rushmore in the United States, with its massive presidential faces carved directly out of the mountain, and the too-far-for-a-commute underground cities of Cappadocia in Turkey.
The World Without Us is not a children’s book. It isn’t even for a story for young adults. But it’s written in such an accessible style that if you’re 15 or older and wonder what the world is coming to, it’s the perfect read.