Friday, 27 March 2009

The World Without Us

For a country with such a famous literary tradition, Ireland has a paucity of libraries and bookstores, with little of the specialty material we are stocking, so we have taken to ordering books online. We received a new shipment – Earth Plastering, When There is No Doctor, and several others, and as usual we fell upon them like locusts.

I have been meaning to mention, though, a book that I received and read some time ago – The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. I usually take weeks to go through a book I enjoy, but this was so absorbing, so lightly written, that I read it in 24 hours, and then read it again.

It begins with a single high-concept premise: What happens when humans disappear? What would collapse immediately, and what of us – monuments, art, environmental contamination – would last?

This may sound like a depressing read, but it is beautifully written, and deals not with unpleasant details of our demise or milky abstractions like "the environment," but with vivid scenes of places where nature has retained or resumed control. In an obscure Polish preserve, for example, the author sees Europe's one remaining old-growth forest -- the lone jigsaw piece of the world that stretched from Ireland to New Guinea. There he finds a world out of Lord of the Rings -- oak trunks meters across, draped in moss centuries thick, whose wrinkles hide animals and which shade mushrooms the size of ottomans.

Diving by a lonely atoll he sees miles of ocean black with sharks. In a Cyprus neutral zone he visits the shell of a resort, the menu still set to the evacuation date 35 years ago, with trees splitting through the pavement. Between the Koreas he finds a 50-year-old fastness sheltering colonies of rare birds, extinct everywhere except where human war lets them live.

I considered why I enjoyed the book so much, beyond its crystalline prose, and realized that it fills an important gap. The End has become popular: panicking economists, grim scientists, movies and television programmes about a mass die-off. We grow numb to the daily science reports of the latest damage we have done, and we begin to lose hope that we can ever return to the richness the world once had.

Wiesman does not gloss over the changes our society has made, but he reminds us that Nature has been through worse than us, and always returns to a new normal. More importantly, his vivid descriptions of the world’s unriven places help us picture a truly wild land, something few of us have ever seen, and helps us assess what we can and cannot restore in human time. We already know we are far from home, but this book replaces our panic at being lost with a map that says, "You are here."

The next step, as Alex Steffen of put it in his criticism of the book, is to imagine a world with us.


Unknown said...

My daughter gave me this book and I agree, it is thoroughly absorbing. The book is a triumph of imagination, vividly written and strangely hopeful. I particulalry liked his explanation of how watercourses will naturally break from their buried pipes and culverts and find daylight again, with salutary effect on wildlife of all kinds. Wonderful imagery; highly recommend this book.

Brian Kaller said...

I completely agree. On a related note, ecologist David Holmgren once mentioned to me that the flooding of coastlines will actually be great for ocean life, as animals can take shelter in our now-abandoned coastal buildings and infrastructure. Personally, I hope we can avoid that silver lining along with the cloud, but we'll see.

Jason Gagnon said...

Would you be so kind to list the books you've acquired with a mind towards the future? I'm slowly putting together my own library for the post-peak oil period, and would like to know what titles you've found to worth the investment in time and money.

Brian Kaller said...

I'd be happy to share, but that's a post in itself. Give me some time to compile a list, and I'll write about it soon.