Saturday, October 06, 2007

The World Without Us

Read the recent best-seller, The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, in which he carries on a book-length thought experiment about what the world would be like should human beings suddenly cease to exist. It’s both slightly chilling and strangely uplifting, sort of the inverse of those shows where we see how things would be today had Germany won World War II or Rome not declined and collapsed.

One of the things that’s quite striking is how quickly many of the artifacts of contemporary civilization would begin to be overtaken by nature. In an oft-cited example from the book, Weisman conjectures that the subway tunnels in New York City could be completely flooded in as little as 36 hours and from then, it would only be a matter of a relatively short time before pavement began collapsing overhead and Lexington Avenue eventually reverted to being a river. Weisman also points out that the concrete and steel skyscrapers of the city, subjected to repeated freezing and thawing would crumble much faster than the older brick buildings like Grand Central Station. That makes me glad; when the anthropologists and paleontologists of the future come to visit Manhattan, it would be nice if most signs of Donald Trump and his ilk are long gone.

The creepiest part of the book to me is Weisman’s extended description of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a spot in the ocean where due to ocean currents, some hundreds of millions of tons of plastic have collected to create a garbage patch roughly the size of the continent of Africa. And unlike New York City’s skyscrapers, those petroleum-based products are expected to last hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years before they fully break down.

Weisman concludes with a reminder that in some 5 billions years, the dying sun will consume all the planets in our solar system anyway; humans will be long gone by then and the earth won’t miss us at all.


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