BookBrowse Reviews The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

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The World Without Us

by Alan Weisman

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2007, 336 pages
    Aug 2008, 368 pages

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A penetrating, page-turning tour of a post-human Earth

According to the CIA Factbook, in 2007, for every 8 people who died 20 were born. Depending on who's estimating that means that the world's population is growing at the rate of about 1 million people every 4 days.

Let's stop for a moment to contemplate this mind-boggling figure. Each week, the global population is increasing by more people than live in the entire of Philadelphia. Each month, the global population increases by almost that of New York City.

Somewhere between when my father was born in the 1920s and today, the world's population has increased more than three-fold from less than 2 billion to 6.7 billion. Sheer numbers combined with "advances" in technology have changed humanity from an intelligent mammal capable of shaping its immediate environment but still subject to the forces of nature, to a bona fide force of nature that is changing the face of the planet.

Free of rabid rantings and written in an immensely accessible style, Weisman has produced a well-balanced and fascinating book crafted to inform, not to panic. There are a myriad of books that examine one or another aspect of man's impact on the earth (rain forest depletion, global warming, water shortages et al) but few offer such a wide-ranging and entertaining overview as The World Without Us which, by imagining a world freed from the pest of humanity, offers a unique perspective on the environmental havoc we are causing.

Weisman travels from Bialowieza Puszcza, Europe's last remnant of primeval forest, to the North Pacific Gyre, the great garbage dump in the Pacific Ocean, interviewing everyone from scientists to art conservators in his effort to imagine how long it would take the Earth to repair itself in our absence and what it would look like. He fills us with a sense of awe for our planet and even for us, the extraordinary species that has transformed the Earth to our own desires, but in so doing has failed to take into account that our short term wants are not compatible to the long term needs of the Earth's species, which include us.

Take plastics for example. Ever since 1839, when Charles Goodyear produced the world's first artificial polymer, we've been filling our world with plastic products that don't degrade; but since World War II the amount of oil based plastics produced has increased exponentially, with only a tiny fraction of it recycled. Much of the dumped plastic ends up in the ocean where it is ingested by all marine animals but particularly the filter feeders at the very bottom of the food chain (on which we all rely) who die of constipation. Studies have shown that in the vast marine garbage dump known as the North Pacific Gyre, plastic particles outweigh plankton by a factor of 6:1 (see sidebar).

In the final chapters, Weisman changes tone dramatically from factoid-driven entertainment to offer a solution that will seem draconian to many but that a growing number of people believe is humanity's only chance of coexisting with nature on a healthy earth that has enough natural resources for all. Weisman proposes that if mankind was to cut its birthrate dramatically by limiting every female to one child we could return the human population to about 1.6 billion by 2100 - back to where it was in the 19th century.

Weisman does not get into the logistics of how such a cut in the birthrate could be achieved in practice which, as we've seen with China's one child policy (in place now for more than 25 years), is easier said than done and can be less than humane in practice; added to which countries would have to rethink their economic models to recognize a shrinking economy as acceptable, even desirable. But surely something needs to be done? Perhaps there is a middle-ground where a change in thinking with regard to individuals' right to reproduce themselves multiple times becomes somewhat less socially acceptable than it is today. Without some drastic change, by the time our 12 year old daughter is old enough to draw her pension in 2050, the world's population is predicted to reach 9 billion people - over four times the number on the planet when her grandfather was born just 130 years before!

This review was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the August 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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