In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman goes off the beaten track to speculate on the future of planet Earth. What he presents is not so much an inconvenient truth as an unconventional thought: what would happen if humanity suddenly disappeared? He spends little time conjecturing how this might happen, apart from noting that its unlikelihood doesn't make it impossible. But what might have provoked a ho-hum response is rescued by Weisman's devotion to his task.
From the demilitarised zone between the Koreas, to the green line separating Greek and Turkish Cyprus, from the underground caves of Cappadocia to Chernobyl's fallout zone, Weisman sets out to bear witness to a world without humans. Along the way, he consults an impressive array of experts happy to play along with his preposterous proposal.
Before embarking on his journey to the future, Weisman begins in the past. Bialowieza Puszca, on the Polish-Belarus border, is teeming with wildlife and groaning with 500-year-old oak trees. The relic of a primeval forest that once stretched from the Atlantic to Siberia, this unsung patch of land truly is the way we were. And, according to Weisman, it may well be the once and future planet. For if humanity were suddenly to disappear, much of the world would revert to this ancient landscape.
Most city-dwellers imagine that man has conquered nature. But within minutes of us moving out, the elements, the weeds and the wildlife would move in. Using the ultimate city as a model, Weisman describes how the New York subway would flood within 36 hours of humanity's demise. After a couple of decades, the great forest of Manhattan skyscrapers would have toppled over, their foundations undermined by a rising tide of water. The concrete jungle would be replaced by a real one, trees and plants no longer uprooted by urban busy bodies. Those parts of the city not over-run by greenery would be submerged by water. If they managed to withstand all of this, along with earthquakes and lightning strikes, the Big Apple's mighty bridges could last as long as a millennium. Protected by her bronze cladding, the Statue of Liberty would also remain intact, albeit in a watery grave.
Beyond the cities, Weisman's span covers the countryside, the seas, the atmosphere flora and fauna. But, with each passing chapter, an unmistakeable message emerges: long after every trace of human life has vanished, our terrible legacy will live on.
Even if the animal and plant kingdoms were to survive UV radiation from an expanding hole in the ozone layer, or a massive poisoning of the atmosphere from exploding petrochemical plants, they would still have to contend with the deadliest of man-made dangers. The contamination of air and water from hundreds of overheating nuclear power stations would unleash a nuclear winter spanning geologic time. Soil creatures would find no respite: heavy metals ploughed into the land by herbicides and pesticides would take thousands of years to degrade. Fish stocks may recover once man is no longer around to plunder the seas. But the millions of tonnes of plastic littering the world's oceans will continue to kill creatures great and small, whether or not we are there to witness it.
As for the monuments of man, the Great Wall of China would melt away, and the Great Pyramid would erode to an unrecognisable rump. Long before that, dams protecting the Panama Canal would be breached by a 20-foot wall of water bursting forward, "like a zoo animal that has never accepted its cage." But Weisman has some reassuring words for the Canal's founding father. Along with those of Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson, the face of Theodore Roosevelt carved into Mount Rushmore has a good chance of surviving a world without humans for several million years.
Beyond that time, Weisman suggests that the only human artifact with a shot at eternity is a gold-plated copper disk placed aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. It contains images and sounds representing the artistic achievements of the human race. Long after humanity has disappeared, suggests Weisman, the music of Mozart will continue its journey across the heavens.
Throughout the book, Weisman uses the future tense rather more than the conditional, enforcing a feeling of grim inevitability. But, as if to lighten the reader's load, he drops in a few fascinating factoids to tickle the intellectual tastebuds: contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall of China isn't visible from outer space, all of humanity could fit into the Grand Canyon, and a century ago most of the music in the world was live, whereas today live music amounts to less than 1 per cent of the total.
Whether describing the messy end of human remains or the extinction of entire species, Weisman delivers his message in an unsensational, matter-of-fact manner that makes some of the grisly passages all the more chilling. But in his final chapter, the author is transformed, from journalist to salesman. Flogging the idea of one birth per child-bearing woman, Weisman contends that only this will save the human race from outgrowing its home planet. The suggestion that overpopulation is the factor most likely to cause the demise of humanity is a jarring interruption, and one which is out of step with the rest of the book.
His conclusion aside, the author is to be highly commended. A twenty-three page bibliography and eleven pages of acknowledgments testify to the breadth of Weisman's research. He dishes out credit to almost everyone, from archaeologists to architects, biologists to ichthyologists. Even Weisman's neighbour (who also happens to be a rocket scientist) gets an authorly pat on the back.
Hell, Jean-Paul Sartre insisted, is other people. So, is a planet without people heaven on earth? If we're to believe Alan Weisman, humanity wouldn't be mourned by many. And today, if they had the capacity for such things, perhaps the coyotes and the polar bears, the Amazonian trees and the Japanese knotweed might direct a single thought in our direction: how can we miss you if you won't go away?