Monday, 12 October 2009

The World Without Us - Alan Weisman

This book gets sorted to the top of two piles. The first is the pile of most interesting books I have read about a world without people (largely because it is the only book I possess or have read on this subject). The second is the pile of most depressing books I have ever read.

No living thing exists without changing the world around them in some small fashion. That’s what life does. However, over millions of years it has developed to create a complex web of interdependence, new species evolve to fill empty niches. There have been explosions of life and mass extinctions. Until now only once in the past has the world been so radically altered that the legacy has lasted through billions of years – when algae began to pump out so much oxygen the only place left for it to go was the atmosphere.

We take oxygen for granted. Most life on the planet depends on it (and those things that don’t have a relationship with those that do). But that change to an atmosphere with oxygen was a step in the evolution of life and it gave rise to new life. The by-products of human existence, however, are like the cold hand of death. We have produced poisons that will still be present long after humanity has become extinct; long after the planet’s atmosphere has been stripped away. Indeed, they will still be here when the Sun expands and the Earth is destroyed.

This has been done already. And along the way we have turned fertile land into deserts, dried up rivers and seas, killed off whole species for sport or fashion, and strewn our filth into every corner from the highest mountain peak to the deepest ocean trench. Every living creature contains chemical toxins we have produced. If we, as a species, were to disappear tomorrow, the cancerous ulceration of our presence would be here for in some form or other until the very end of the world.

Weisman’s book is well researched (if at times tiresomely undermined by his propensity for introducing people as if they were characters in a badly written novel). Each chapter is an essay that looks at one strand of the human legacy. It points out that all the things we hold to be good and noble about our species would last a few centuries (all that art work and architecture, all that music, literature, and so on – useless without us anyway). All that is thoughtless, careless, and born out of greed will carry on poisoning the planet for thousands and millions of years to come.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about this book is that there is nothing much in it that is new. All this stuff is well known to scientists, technologists, and politicians (well, maybe not politicians as most of them as thick as pig shit and a lot less useful) but nothing is done about it. Individuals can make a choice in some countries, but whilst we allow greed to be enshrined in our political and legal systems, things will only get worse.

Despite the extra layer of gloom this settled around me, it is nonetheless a book I would recommend. It is, on the whole, well-written. It covers a great deal of ground, conveying complex ideas without once resorting to jargon. At no point does it go for sensationalism – it doesn’t need to. It is certainly thought provoking. Read. Consider. And then look at all the plastic that surrounds you.