The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

I have to admit that it was the cover of this book that sold it to me. Saw it out of the corner of my eye when I was browsing in Akademiska bokhandeln (the Academic book shop) in Helsinki a while ago. [Love that bookshop for its size and character. Three stories high, easy to find sections… lots of books on everything! LundeQ in Uppsala, before it moved form its old housing at the Fyris river in the end of the 90ies could have competed with it on those terms.] Anyway, the cover; it consists (at least on the 2008 paperback edition) of a seemingly endless forest from which a few easily recognizable human monuments rising up from the green. (At a closer look the perspectives are somewhat wrong, but I take this to be "artistic freedom" rather than a mistake.)

I have always liked the idea and images of the remnants of civilization hidden away in wilderness. I like to think about how the South American empires was before Europeans arrived. Or what in the future is to become of this so called human world that we on right or wrong terms call civilization. But, most I really like the thought of nature and human-made technology existing close, in symbiosis. I have many times wondered why those things appeal to me like that; why I happen to think that the most lovely of man-made structures are wind power mills (also the old type, but especially the modern gigantic ones) and light houses. I guess it is because they always are positioned in relative closeness to the rest of nature. Sometimes you see them far from any settlement, and often nature has crept close upon them. Still, they serve mankind and does so in a relative environmentally friendly manner.

I know people who clearly despise seeing a set of gigantic windmills sticking up from the woods a couple of hills away when hiking in the wilderness. In their opinion it is destroying the great outdoors. It reminds them of the world they want to forget, the reason they are out here. I do not agree. I think technology and nature need to live closer to each other, to me the windmills are a sign from where I came. But not of the bad parts, the asphalt, toxins and cities - rather they are signs that humans can do right, and that our structure and order can co-exist with nature.

But, and this is important, it has to be in that order. The chaotic nature has to be in majority, creeping up, embracing the technology. It can not be the other way around. No way how green we try to make our cities they will always be unnatural if we try to build and order nature the way we build with materials. Life came from chaos, and there in lies its beauty. If nature is invited to the cities, it may be possible to coexist even there. Maybe.

Anyway, the Book. The title, The World Without Us , also got my attention. This is something that has been interesting me for some time: how will earth look like after humankind? I find it extremely fascinating. I do not think we live in a high culture right now, probably the opposite. But, what will happen when humans are gone? Will we go? After reading the back cover, the idea of the book thrilled me, and I bought it.

Weisman starts from the assumption that all humans disappear from earth in one magic sweep. It is a fairly good way of skipping a difficult discussion on how the human race could vanish. These questions are not the scope of the book, and not really interesting. Ask is instead: what happens next? What legacy have we left behind? How long does it take for nature to reclaim all the things we have conquered, the pollutions we have let out and to repair what we have destroyed?

I had expected a book discussing how the forest would regain cities, and maybe something on how buildings crumbled. I had some romantic views of city landscapes returned to the wild, and wanted to know how it would happen. Weisman shows this, but also so much more!

The book touches several aspects of human life on earth. From our buildings, architecture and art to the legacy of technology and the waste we have left behind. At the same time as it highlights the impossible rate at which the 20 and 21st century humans have been devouring the planet resources; it also points out what we will leave behind, and give background to many biological aspects. It is a treasure of interesting facts. The discussion of what will change without humans are interleaved with tales from forests, power plants, archaeological digs and the seven seas. All of it extremely interesting, and educating. One learns of the Mayan civilization, waste storage, birds and an ancient cave city of a kind at least I only thought existed in fantasy books; just to name a few things. All this, and more are trough the book weaved into a story showing how the world would be without humans.

Speaking of interesting, many of the facts in the book was already known to me through watching all episodes of my all time TV-series favourite: QI . So, many small facts and notes in the book has been mentioned throughout the series, that I started to expect that Alan Weisman had been involved in the production somehow. A quick google search did not turn up anything however. If someone knows, I would be interested to hear about it.

In short it is extremely entertaining, and also very skilfully written. This kind of book, discussing the extreme peril of earth and humankind, could easily become heavy and depressing. Instead Weisman is always positive. Even when discussing the pain of plastic particles introduced into the ecosystem he manages to keep the faith. All at the same time as he manage to point out the seriousness of the situation. Most importantly, this book silently points out a truth that is always present, but not understandable every day: it is life in general that matters in the long run.

Life will always find a way. It is up to us, and our actions, to decide if the way of the future will be with or without humans.