The world without us

by Alan Weisman

Paper Book, 2007


Journalist Weisman offers an original approach to questions of humanity's impact on the planet. Drawing on the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, art conservators, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, religious leaders, and paleontologists, he illustrates what the planet might be like today if humans disappeared. He explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence; which everyday items may become immortalized as fossils; how copper pipes and wiring would be crushed into mere seams of reddish rock; why some of our earliest buildings might be the last architecture left; and how plastic, bronze sculpture, radio waves, and some man-made molecules may be our most lasting gifts to the universe. As he shows which human devastations are indelible, and which examples of our highest art and culture would endure longest, Weisman's narrative ultimately drives toward a radical but persuasive solution that needn't depend on our demise.--From publisher description.… (more)



Call number



New York : Picador/Thomas Dunne Books/St Martin's Press, c2007.

Media reviews

That said, the science and factual stuff is, almost invariably, mind-boggling. I did not know, for instance, that ships the length of three football pitches entering the locks of the Panama Canal have only two feet of clearance on each side; that there may well be at least one billion annual bird
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deaths from flying into glass in the United States alone; or that graphic designers have been called in to imagine what warnings against coming too close to nuclear waste containers will be comprehensible 10,000 or more years from now.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member adamallen
The World Without Us is a book which intends to describe how nature would go about reclaiming New York City should humans suddenly cease to exist. While the concept intrigued me and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, I found the book to be disjointed and quite frankly somewhat boring.
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Let me be clear in that it wasn't bad. It was more along the lines of mediocre. Nonetheless, I finally stopped reading it on page 75.

You might be saying, "Everyone else has said how riveting and breathtaking it is. They say it has a chance to change people and it will be a classic - so explain your low review." OK, fine.

Mr. Weisman spends more of his time explaining evolution than he does explaining what will come of Earth should we leave it. He does get around to "the world without us" but when he does, it comes across as almost an afterthought. He spends three-quarters of a chapter talking about the study of apes by researchers in Africa and then 5 pages on what that means should humans disappear from NYC. He spends three-quarters of a chapter describing how foreign plant species made it to the U.S. and then 7 pages talking about how the battle would play out between those species and the native plants in Central Park should we vanish.

In other words, the book is more about how we got to this point (i.e. Earth & man's evolution) than "The World Without Us". That aspect of it comes across as secondary. I felt a more appropriate title might have been, "The World as a Result of Us". I recognize the importance to support your argument. I'll freely admit that had he done nothing but say, "this would happen, and this would happen, and so would this" with no supporting evidence, I'd be writing an equally disappointing review. However, this is a brave book to attempt and I felt like he just didn't get there. I also found the attempt at going back and forth between the past (how we got here) and the future (after we're gone) to be disjointed. It didn't flow well for me. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, it just never hooked me. It got to the point that reading it became somewhat tedious. While the evolutionary background was interesting, I kept thinking "get to the point".

I'm a fan of McKibben (who has a quote featured on the front of the book) and I really liked the concept here. It just never quite did it for me. Maybe it will for you. Apparently most people love it.
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LibraryThing member EowynA
This is an exercise in speculative non-fiction. Recommended

The author has taken what was originally an essay, and expanded it into a book. It is a dissertaion on how we have changed the world around us, and how permanent, or not, those changes are. In some cases, such as the Green line between the
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Turks and the Greeks in Cyprus. It is a classic tale of the reclamation of land by the wild. A forest burned several years ago, and now the hillside is covered with poppies that have not been common there for ages. The forest in Poland that is the last remnant of the Northern European forest is described in terms almost lyrical. In some ways it reminded me of the descriptions of forest in "Freckles" and "Girl of the Limberlost".

The information about the struggle of New York to stay as it is - the pumps removing the underground rivers, the park service removing seedlings, and the squirrels stealing all the seeds from the forest remnant there. Those parts are encouraging.

But the description of the effect of plastic on the ocean life is very depressing. Plastic became a force of nature after WWII, but nature has not figured out what to do with it. It is eaten by most sea creatures, and if they are lucky, they excrete it. If not, it lodges in their gut, causing a fatal constipation. That is discouraging.

It is hard to read the book in one sitting. The scenarios are supported by examples, but rarely statistics (making it more readable than "An Inconvenient Truth"). It has only touched on Climate Change, so far. The encouraging thing is that he talks of people who are studying the problems, and looking for solutions.
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LibraryThing member stephmo
Fascinating in a macabre way. Weisman's look at the planet and how it might react to the sudden and complete departure of man is a mix of the amazing comeback power of nature and the legacy humans will leave even in their absence. And the brief interlude on serial killer cats does throw in a dash
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of the thriller...

For a book that relies on a pretty big "what if" question, Weisman's postulations are largely grounded in small-scale occurrences both current and past. In this, the book manages to weave a tale of both hope and peril for what man's departure might mean for everything from nature to buildings to the arts to the oceans and everything in between. Just know that the cats are already serial killers.
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LibraryThing member Jaie22
The author barely mentions it, but in The World Without Us, within two weeks the entire South will be overtaken by kudzu. Okay, by the end of the first summer, anyway.
LibraryThing member AldusManutius
Another entry in the ever-popular "interesting magazine article padded out to not-so-interesting book length" category.
LibraryThing member tootstorm
I'm judging Weisman's work a little more harshly than most here because I feel it's too slim and simple on presenting its ideas. Everything from this book can be found in the readings for a single introductory college course on environmental ethics or resource management--all it adds is the context
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suggested by the book's gimmicky title.

That's not to say simple can't be excellent, but with how World... presents its info, it feels like Weisman did the bare minimum amount of research--as if his only source was a single introductory class or textbook filtered through a writer's whimsy. E.g., he shies away from referencing original research, and instead frequently mentions news articles inaccurately referencing original research as his sources. E.g., he references a number of outdated terms or ideas, such as continental drift or, positively, "The cure for pollution is dilution." (Ouch....)

World... is an alright book, but there are certainly better-written alternatives out there that cover all the same material and more. And, as a science journalist with as big an audience as he has, Weisman really shouldn't be skimping out on his homework.

That said, it's really not too bad if you're in need of an introduction to these environmental topics.
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LibraryThing member delirium
Though the book is ostensibly about what the world will look like after humans have left it, what makes it interesting are all the little tidbits it contains about our past. Weisman talks in turn about human evolutionary theory, ancient cities, the construction of New York city, and African
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history, among other things. It's an excellent read for people like me who want to know a little about everything.
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LibraryThing member bingereader
The World Without Us is an interesting extrapolation of a What if? scenario that looks forward rather than backward into history.

Though an agenda is clear in the writing, Wiesman doesn't belabor the issue or beat you over the head with the "consequences of our actions" but rather paints an
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alternate reality of the world without us.

With a easily readable style and pace, the book reads at times like non-fiction Sci-Fi and caters to a broad audience. Personally, I found the book equal parts entertainment and enlightenment as I imagined the future that is painted by the author.

As to the "accuracy" of his extrapolations, I will leave that to more learned readers to decide; however, his scenarios appear plausible and based on some degree of research.
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LibraryThing member BucksLRC1
This is a book without parallel. Assuming the cause is not some radical, environment-destroying event, what would happen to all that we have built and done if we were to vanish tomorrow? This book is a curious yet perfect blend of outright information presentation and realistic extrapolation. It is
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literally impossible to overstate this book's value, impact, or presentation. Weisman's "The World Without Us" is truly one of those books you cannot surrender until it is finished, and keeps surprising you all the way through. Although the phrase is badly overused, this book really IS a "Must Read!"
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LibraryThing member BenjaminHahn
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman left me feeling a bit out of my normal mental state. The scope is huge and the implications are almost too daunting to take in after finishing. The premise is unique: what would happen to planet earth if humans suddenly didn't exist anymore. "Impossible" I
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thought, "but still interesting". Basing his arguments in a reams of scientific research, Weisman exports the reader outside of our current reality, into cities, farms, the ocean where humans simply are not a factor anymore.

At first, I was a little resistant to the authors tone in the first couple chapters. He came across very sure of himself and even a little condescending. He sings the glories of misquoto abundance after humans stop spraying pesticide and quotes E.O Wilson on the same page, yet E.O. Wilson has explicity stated before that he would love to see misquotos go extinct. After a few chapters though, I began to settle into Weisman's style and was pleasantly surprised by the variety of subjects that he adeptly cruises through with intelligence and wit. Geology, History, Politics, Engineering, Biology, Ornithology are all hit upon. It was also impressive the number of places that Weisman visited in order to write the book: North Korean, Houston, Panama Canal, Poland, New York, ect. Even if Weisman had a particular environmentalist bent, he was doing his homework and siting his sources rigorously.

The most unsettling parts of this book for me, albiet well written, were the sections on plastic. The fact that this relatively recent invention has become so pervasive is not something necessarily new to me, but the extent to which it is explained here in this book was concerning. These particles of plastic just keep breaking down into smaller and smaller parts where smaller and smaller creatures eat them. That and they are predicted to be stable for the next 20,000 years is hard to even think about. The uncertianty about how plastic particles are going to effect an ecoystem for that amount of time is what is worrisome to me. The same goes for nuclear fusion leaks. It saddens me that one of the legacies we could be possible leaving behind for our grandchildren's grandchildren is a utterly useless and poisoned land. A poisoned land that could possibly be dangerous for thousands and thousands of years.

One of the more simply fascinating sections was the piece on Cappadocia in Turkey, where entire cities lie undergound being unused for centuries. Lost underground cities are always sure to please and it always triggers my D & D playing imagination when I discover mysterious forgotten civilizations. Especially when there is a good chance that there are even more subterrainian catacombs still undiscovered.

I also found the jobs of the scientists who design granite nuclear waste slabs fascinating. These guys have to come up with some type of way to convey to humans or other intelligent life in the far future that these nuclear waste dumps are dangerous. Assuming that language mutates so fast, how do you warn someone who is thousands of years in the future and how do you insure that the medium you even choose to relay this message is going to last that long. Again, my RPG adventure mind was eating this up, just imagining myself being one of a few straggling tribes of humans left on the planet thousands of years from now stumbling through the desert of what was once South East United States and finding a mysterious hunk of granite that strange symbols on it. How would we decipher it? What would we think of its creators?

All of these things just reinforced my sense of human insignificance, but not in a way that meant human life is meaningless, but just that its not as significant as many of us go on thinking it is. As an athiest, I am often confronted with the notion that this life is all you get, so you better make it good. This book did a good job of explaining that what we are doing will have drastic effects on the planet for a long time whether we are here or not. Also, however, even if we as a species dissappeared tomorrow, the planet would recover in due time and life would continue to thrive despite the millenia long problems we would be leaving behind.
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LibraryThing member kaitanya64
Weisman uses as his starting point a hypothetical future in which humans vanish and the earth slowly reacts to our absence. However, his real purpose seems to be to provide a tour of some of our most ecologically endangering activities, the damage that even without us the earth will not be able to
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decompose, grow over or otherwise heal. Written in an engaging style with plenty of human interest through interviews and great description, this helped me see environmental issues in new ways.
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LibraryThing member Greg51
"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you got till it's gone." - Joni Mitchell

I learned so much I didn't know. Our copper will last but even stainless steel is doomed. Ceramics are artificial fossils. Plastic nurdles are in the sea. Plastics concentrate pollutants like PCBs which
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are absorbed by filter feeders and added to the food chain. They will last thousands of years. In the middle of the ocean there are gyres with tons of plastic bags blown out to sea from landfills.
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LibraryThing member pbirch01
This book really caught me by surprise. I was expecting another environmentalist rant about how we are destroying the earth and how evil mankind is. And yet, the more I read the more I wanted to read it. Each chapter is a deviation from the one before it and ultimately showing a larger picture
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about the current state of the planet. Weisman covers a wide range of topics and its obvious to the reader that he enjoyed researching each topic. Weisman is also able to take many topics and make them easier to visualize. Walking outside after reading this I could not help but notice how many tufts of grass and roots were breaking through the asphalt. I think that this is a good example of the possibilities of what will happen when humans leave and nature takes control of the planet again.
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LibraryThing member jcovington
First half of the book is great and just as advertised. It seemed like the ending was, well, more like 'uh oh, I promised the publishers 3 more chapters!' rather than 'here is some more fun thought experiment for you!' so it loses a star and a half for wandering off course and getting somewhat dull
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and repetative at the end (that seems to be a common theme with this genre).
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LibraryThing member SNS101
Where to start? This book is the most comprehensive material I’ve ever read concerning humankind’s effect on the environment. Although the premise is somewhat simple, and certainly not new, Weisman delves into what the reader feels like is EVERY aspect of humanity’s effect upon the world.
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From the smallest ripples (slowly decaying infrastructure) to the largest waves (the world slowly repopulating itself with megafauna such as giant American sloths) he investigates the repercussions of a total disappearance of humans from the face of the earth. Weisman goes back into the past—drawing parallels between the Mayan civilization’s suicidal greed and overpopulation and our current lifestyle—and into the future, imagining the lifetime of ‘I Love Lucy’ re-run wavelengths.

I was surprised by how factual this book was. Although Bill McKibben blurbs it as being “a tremendous feat of imaginative reporting,” the book’s content is so thoroughly researched it seems like a prediction of what exactly will happen if we continue on this destructive path. Weisman offers MANY sources (with a 29 page “select” bibliography) as well as differing theologies for nearly every concept he presents. Les Knight, the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (and a “thoughtful, soft-spoken, articulate” man) has his arguments proposed adjacent to those belonging to the self-explanatory Church of Euthanasia.

In my opinion, Weisman is rarely preachy or pedantic, assuming an objective tone as he describes the current human-wrought decimation upon his beloved world. His love of the world is apparent, however, in every image of verdant hillsides he conjures up, notably absent of human life. That’s what truly distinguishes this book from a dry recounting of doomsday factoids.

I’m not sure if I’m left with a feeling of hope or despair for the future, after reading The World Without Us. Weisman makes it clear that we can try to repair what we’ve broken—at one point bringing up a study from the World Population Program that states that if all fertile women began having only one child starting tomorrow, “our current 6.5 billion human population would drop by 1 billion by the middle of this century,”—but I’m not convinced. As the Dalai Lama says, ignorant as the rest of us to what the future may hold, “Who knows?”

“Yet the biggest elephant of all is a figurative one in the planet-sized room that is ever harder to ignore, although we keep trying. Worldwide, every four days human population rises by 1 million. Since we really can’t grasp such numbers, they’ll wax out of control until they crash, as has happened to every other species that got too big for this box. About the only thing that could change that, short of the species-wide sacrifice of voluntary human extinction, is to prove that intelligence really makes us special after all.”
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LibraryThing member bibliolana
Fascinating! Describes what would happen to the earth if humans were gone. Some surprising scenarios. Very readible nonfiction.
LibraryThing member linedog1848
A fun and eye-opening thought experiment. Weisman does a great job showing the damage we're doing to the planet, and is able to leave the reader with a sense of responsibility to act even though the point of the book as a whole focuses on the insignificance of our activities when compared to the
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resilience of nature and the scale of geologic time. This book is hopeful and encouraging, illuminating the huge environmental consequences of human activity without being fatalistic.
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LibraryThing member clif_hiker
I found this to be an easy and enjoyable read... swinging from science fiction apocalypticism to hard core environmentalism. Eye opening in a lot of ways. The information about plastic was especially interesting, that there are some 4000 factories in India that make nothing but plastic grocery
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sacks, and that most of that plastic is still here, somewhere, on Earth.

Whether this book makes any impact or not remains to be seen, but I'm pretty sure the author was writing more to entertain than anything else.

Recommended, although can be depressing at times.
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LibraryThing member blackjacket
There is much more to this book than the "what if?" scenario of the title and blurbs suggest. My advice: jump straight to Chapter 9 "Polymers are Forever" and be amazed. At the very least you will discover what a nurdle is. And you will never think about facial scrubs the same way again>
LibraryThing member cbjorke
What would happen on the Earth if, one day, all the people suddenly disappeared? Alan Weisman suggests some kind of Universalist rapture or mass exodus with the help of space aliens as a vehicle for our departure so that he can continue with his thought experiment. How would nature deal with
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everything left behind by 21st century humanity?

Weisman looks at several places in the world,remaining vestiges of the of the pre-human world and case studies for his thought experiment. Bialowieza Puszcza is a vestigal old growth forest on the border between Poland and Belarus. It is not untouched by man, of course, but has been preserved since the middle ages as a royal hunting preserve and as a national park. The wisent, the European bison, is still in residence there along with deer, wild boars an other European large mammals. No aurochs, sadly. Weisman suggetsts that a forest like Bialowieza Puszcza could once again cover most of Europe.

The subways, tunnels and buried streams on Manhattan would suddenly fill with water. New York pumps thousands of gallons of water every day out of it's underworld. When the pumps stop all would go underwater. This water would rust out the steel structure holding New York up, cause the streets to become canals, the buried streams to re-emerge and the tall buildings to fall. Central Park would become the source of seed to reestablish a forest on the island, wildlife would cross the bridges, soon to collapse from rust and lack of maintenance, and repopulate the island. Rats and cockroaches would die off without the support of their human hosts to feed them and heat their homes. - That's a good thing, Martha.

Houston would become a huge oil and chemical spill which would pollute the ship canal and cause problems for life far out into the Gulf of Mexico. Over time, Weisman hopes, nature would heal the mess, as it is doing for Prince William Sound. It could take centuries.

Nuclear power plants need us to keep them from melting down. Nature would move right in to te contaminated areas, however, as it has done at Chyrnobl An article that he wrote about the aftermath of Chernobyl is, in fact, the inspiration for this book. Grasses, trees, animals and human squatters have occupied the contaminated zone around the ruined nuclear plant, and will pay the inevitable penalty in increased cancers and birth defects.

The worlds oceans would recover, over time, coral reefs would come back and, interestingly, Weisman predicts that the oceans would soon be filled with huge sharks and other large predators. Some studies have suggested that, in a healthy, balanced ocean, much of the biomass is stored in large carnivores, and not is the smaller herbivores and plants as on land. This is because to the rapid rate of reproduction of small fish and of plankton, corals and other marine life, which is quickly eaten. The large carnivores live longer and store that energy, to be recycled years later, when they die of natural causes.

There is no big message in The World Without Us, no doomsday prophecy. Weisman simply wanted to think about the effect humanity has had on the world and his method for doing so was to imagine our sudden withdrawal. He does suggest that the Earth might miss us if we went away. Humanity is a part of nature, too.

I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book!
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LibraryThing member koeniel
In 'The World Without Us' Alan Weisman presented a very interesting thought experiment - what would happen to the world if humans suddenly disappeared from earth. The book is not the only one that has toyed around with the scenario, neither is Weisman the first author. History Channel has a
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documentary called 'Life After People' which examines the same subject. A while back the BBC popular science magazine 'Focus' also featured Stephen Baxter's educated guess on 'Earth Without Man'. No wonder, it is a fascinating subject. And it is not one that's impossible, although everyone seems to agree that the possibility is small that human would just disappear. Crazy scientist characters like those shown in the movies could release some deadly viruses that could wipe humanity off the earth for example.

And after reading Weisman's book you can't help but having a tiny nagging feeling that maybe, considering how destructive we have been to earth, humanity does deserve to be wiped out of the earth. At least for a while, just to give time for nature to breath. You get this feeling because unlike other examinations of what it would be like if we suddenly disappeared, Weisman took his analysis a step deeper. Not only showing what happens to buildings, bridges, cars and farmlands after we are zapped away, he opens each of his examination with the human impact on a certain aspect of environment, most of which are of course bad. After showing how we have poisoned the land and the sea or cause extinctions to othe rspecies, then he showed how all this negative impact will, sooner or later, be neutralised by nature. However nature works slowly, but human destroys nature at a very fast pace and nature is overwhelmed. If humanity disappeared, nature's task in neutralising all the poisons that human has poured would be easier.

He showed how plastics - something that was only invented a short while ago, but has now become an inseparable part of our modern life - have choked sea animals and killed birds. We were told about The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a spot in the Pacific Ocean, more than 1000 mile wide, where ocean current brings most of the garbage that modern society throw, both on land and in water. Ninety percent of the garbage was plastics and they are practically indestructible. He showed how farming has destroyed many species and poisoned land and water and how flora and fauna diversity diminishes by day.

Is it too late then? Do humans have to disappear really before nature can fix itself to be back to the Garden of Eden that it was? Some people think that they could persuade human to have agreement to lower birth rate and behave more ethically towards environment. Some think that it's impossible to fight the explosion of population and human will continue to process of exhausting and destroying earth resources. Then if humanity is to survive people have to find other worlds to colonise or maybe evolve into virtual world, existing as minds without bodies. Weisman's glimmer of hope seems to come from the believe that humans are actually weary of witnessing the collapse of nature and the disappearing of its flora and fauna, that everyone is seduced by the vision of the beauty of a world relieved of the burdens placed by modern society. If not then humanity would have to be satisfied with leaving a legacy of civilisation, which will not last, destroyed slowly by nature.

The thick book with 19 chapters (not including prelude and coda) is a fascinating read. Weisman did an extensive research and re-tell it in masterful and interesting narration. He makes the science easy to be digested by layman, although sometimes his prosaic writing leave you confused on whether what he is trying to say is literal or figurative. But his descriptions are vivid and you would have to be an iron hearted human if you don't get moved, and hopefully changed your attitude towards the environment, after reading this book.
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LibraryThing member woodge
When I told people I was reading this non-fiction book and that the premise was "What would happen to the earth if the human race suddenly vanished?" the usual response was to say something like, "So it's fiction?"

Ugh. NO.

First of all, to understand what could happen, we have to understand what has
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already happened so far. And then, backed up by scientific knowledge from various experts in various fields, the author explains a very likely outcome of what would happen if we were just -- poof -- gone. This book is absolutely fascinating. So much so, that I was routinely ignoring the fantasy fiction I was concurrently reading and kept heading back to this book. I don't often find non-fiction page-turners but this one qualifies. And along with fascinating, this book is frequently alarming -- but not in a strident, self-righteous tone or anything like that. This book presented me with many facts about the earth and our impact on it in a straightforward manner that just makes your proverbial jaw drop. The two most alarming chapters for me were Chapter 9: Polymers Are Forever and Chapter 15: Hot Legacy. In the former I learned all about the plastic refuse that is currently clogging our oceans. A LOT of plastic, mind-boggling... the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was mentioned and then I learned that there are at least six other large plastic-strewn gyres*.

So. That's bad. But then along comes Chapter 15 which goes into detail about radioactive waste, how much of it we have, what we're doing with it, and just how bad it is. HOLY CRAP. Take Uranium-238, for example. This "depleted" version of U-235 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. In the United States alone, there's at least a half-million tons of it. U-238 is an unusually dense metal, so we've been making armor-piercing bullets out of it. (They can pierce tank armor.) There's enough concentrated U-238 in the bullet points that radioactivity in the ashen debris can exceed 1,000 times the normal background level. They'll emit radiation for more years than the planet likely has left. (That is, this stuff will still be radioactive when 4 or 5 billion years from now our sun expands to a red giant and incinerates the inner planets in our solar system. Nice.)

I could go on but suffice it to say that this book should be required reading. An excellent book.

*Oceanography. a ringlike system of ocean currents rotating clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.
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LibraryThing member melydia
A study of all the myriad ways the earth would be affected if humans up and disappeared all at once. I have a bit of a fascination with urban decay, so learning about what would happen to our infrastructure without upkeep was really cool. Unfortunately, the author gave the distinct impression that
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the world would be better off without people, which was kind of tiresome. I'm all for reducing one's footprint, but it was strongly implied that humans are interlopers on our home planet. All that aside, the bits about history and technology were pretty cool. Just don't expect a tale of hope and human ingenuity.
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LibraryThing member tgraettinger
Weisman gives an interesting account of how the world would change if suddenly we (humans) weren't here. My greatest surprise was in how the cities would deteriorate rapidly, with high-rises toppling over their neighbors like big, wide trees. I also found it interesting how the NY subways would
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flood with water in a scant few days without power to run the pumps that keep them dry. It's amazing to me, if not surprising, how important power/electricity is in maintaining our modern living spaces. Nature is always trying to beget more nature, and it will win in the long run - I hope.
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LibraryThing member calmclam
I really enjoyed this and thought it was very well-researched, but not very well structured. Each element (subway, electricity, megafauna) were looked at independently, so it was difficult to come up with a comprehensive view of what the world might look like in a week, a month, a year, a century.


Original publication date



0312427905 / 9780312427900
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