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Peter HeineggNovember 19, 2007
The World Without Usby By Alan WeismanSt. Martin’s Press. 324p $24.95
I beheld, cried the prophet Jeremiah, and lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled (4:25, KJV). One part of the Bible that has gained in heft thanks to the technological horrors of modernity is the apocalyptic genre. When visionaries in either testament describe a global cataclysm, we know, much better than our forebears, just how feasible that would be. We have had lots of practice lately. But what if, for whatever reason, only the human race were erased from the scene?

That is the question posed by Alan Weisman, a science writer and professor of journalism at the University of Arizona, in The World Without Usa stunning extended fantasy about a planet freed from the too-clever-by-half creatures now loving it to death. In a rapid tour Weisman takes us to far-flung sites, from the red desert of Houston to Chernobyl to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (an Africa-sized floatingand submergedgarbage dump, full of non-biodegradable plastic debris), where red alerts are flashing. If we suddenly disappeared, all sorts of positive things, from a sub-Homo sapiens standpoint anyway, would start to happen. With one bold, lyrical stroke after another, Weisman evokes devastation (100 million sharks killed every year, 400 black rhinos in Kenya, down from 20,000 in 1970; nearly 200 million birds dead per year from collisions with electrical towers; 60 million board feet of hardwoods buried annually in the form of coffins, etc.), fading into a splendid resurgence of flora and fauna (lions in southern Europe, polar bears back from the brink, coral reefs reflorescent).

And this is not simply idle speculation. There are a tiny handful of places, like the D.M.Z. in Korea, where the temporary absence of humans has led to a sort of re-Edenizing of the land. Even the nuclear hell of Rocky Flats, Colo., (whose Infinity Room held higher levels of radiation contamination than any instrument could measure) has now become, of all things, a thriving wildlife sanctuary. Plutonium has proved less deadly than hunters and ranchers so far, anyway.

But while Weismans vistas of regeneration add up to a stirring sci-fi utopia, one has to recall that the real purpose of utopias is to offer not blueprints for the future, but scalding critiques of the present. Weisman would be the first one to admit that he has no idea how any Twilight of the Pros-thetic Gods (as Freud called us) would actually play out (a super-virus? H-bomb? global warming to the boil?), how many species we would take down with us (head and body lice, to begin with) and so forth. The real point in imagining a post-human world is to dramatize the cruel conditions that would make such a world, if it ever existed, a welcome relief to its remaining inhabitants.

So, essentially were back in the ethical-ecological framework of Silent Spring (1963), only with a still broader and more depressing panorama. How did we ever manage to make such a mess? Weisman takes the long view: he follows the controverted blitzkrieg theory of the paleozoologist Paul Martin, who holds that three-quarters of all the North Americas mega-fauna (various mammoths, the giant ground sloth, the dire wolf, et al.) were killed off by human hunters millennia before the white man arrived.

Not that species slaughter has ever spared humans. When the Spaniards first landed in Mexico, there were something like 25 million Meso-Americans there. A century later the number had plunged to one million. But the Mexicans, if not the Caribs, made a population comeback; their animal victims did not. America enshrined Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore, where he enjoys quasi-immortality (the erosion rate there is only an inch every 10,000 years). But on one of his typical African safaris in 1909 Roosevelt shot over 600 animals.

And this pattern has speeded up explosively since the long-forgotten eras when human herders turned the Sahara and much of the Middle East into deserts. Millions of acres in Appalachia have recently been dynamited to remove the overburden from coal mines beneath. The Yangtze dolphin has just joined the swelling ranks of extinct species, from the clumsy 600-pound flightless moa to the beautiful passenger pigeon (once, in its countless billions, the most abundant bird on Earth).

Thanks to the host of eloquent scientists and popularizers who followed Rachel Car-son, much of this dismal story is now widely known. These days even the worst enemies of nature have to pretend to be green. But what, if anything, can be done at this late date? Weisman introduces us to a dogged bunch of ecologists who are carrying on the unglamorous but crucial work of studying fossils, analyzing soils, counting fish, tracing poisons and so on, in an effort to diagnose our wounded biomes andif we ever learn from our mistakesto correct them. He then spins all these documentary strands into a vivid tapestry of mostly bad news (a 2,000-acre park of tall grass, donated by Exxon-Mobil, is all thats left of six million acres of Texas coastal prairie). What a bunch of home-wreckers.

And, speaking of homes, Weisman does a brilliant virtuoso routine on the way houses and buildings fall apart without their inhabitants. We dont really know what might happen to all the domesticated animals without us; but every homeowner knows what a little, or a lot of, neglect will do to roofs, basements or plumbing; and Weisman carries the familiar theme of the ravages of time and the weather, of floods, storms and the freeze-thaw cycle to epic heights as he surveys the grim destiny of every human edifice up to and including skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels, farms, factories and nuclear reactors, when deprived of maintenance. With an engineers expertise (Weisman has talked to all the right people), he shows precisely how our built-up world will crack, crumble, collapse, rot and give way to its indifferent new owners. All flesh is grass, says Isaiah (40:6); and so, Weisman insists, perhaps with a bit of schadenfreude, are the Manhattan skyline, the Panama Canal and the Great Wall of China.

For all his astonishing knowledge, though, Weismans most impressive quality is his unrelenting, fiercely curious, tragicomic passion for the places he keeps picturing first as trashed and then as transformed. Either way, we crowns of creation have been behaving badly; and Weismans indictment stings, though it is bracing as well as bitter. The World Without Us looks very much like the environmental book for some time to come.

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