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HALL OF FAMEon 27 November 2007
According to some biologists, the Earth is suffering an "infestation". The afflicting organism, "Homo sapiens" has overrun the planet. The infection is recent, several thousand years old in its most virulent phase. During that brief period, however, the surface of the planet has been seriously transformed. Alan Weisman has confronted the impact of our infection of the biosphere with an entirely fresh approach. Relying little on speculation, excepting only what might make the human species disappear, he points up our environmental foot print describing how the planet would recover from what our presence has effected. A captivating read, this book is at once an indictment and a challenge to our intellect and our values.

The great metropolis of New York City is one focal point in this account. Once traversed by 40 meandering streams feeding the ocean and river, the island, but for its striking Central Park, is now "tamed". Massive buildings line its many kilometres of pavement, and the storm sewer systems have replaced Nature's waterways. Yet, those rivulets persist, demanding flow rights. The loss of humanity would shut down the 753 pumps that keep the subway tunnels relatively dry. The streams, assisted by the bordering river and ocean would quickly inundate them. The bridges' streams of vehicles haven't stopped the return of wildlife to the city, and human abandonment would accelerate the process. Botany's realm, however, may never recover its original domain. Too many human-introduced species have an irresistible foothold. Those tall buildings bracketing the asphalt ribbons would also ultimately break down, providing havens for birds and small mammals before succumbing. The one species we've all been taught to be the ultimate survivor - the kitchen cockroach - would disappear with the first harsh winter.

Weisman doesn't limit his account for his native land's reading audience, however. The entire planet becomes his information hunting ground. An ancient patch of forest in Eastern Europe has been protected for centuries by hunting noblemen. While the deletion of humans would allow the forest to expand, it's likely the confined herd of European bison would enjoy the same recovery. In our original homeland, the natural predator-prey balance would be briefly offset by the ready meals our domesticated animals would provide. Herds of cattle, goats and sheep in Africa, untutored by natural selection to avoid lions and cheetahs, would fill feline bellies. Where the big cats would rule undeterred for a time, many microbes would be forced to make some spectacular adjustments. Oil dumps and nuclear stations, slowly breaking down would flood the landscape with hydrocarbons and radiation. Some microbes are already resistant to radioactive elements while some can "eat" oil. Others would have to expand their range of comestibles by adapting to them over millennia. Whether similar adjustments might be made for the mass of plastics we've dumped into the world remains an open question, Weisman says.

Although his original premise may be fantasy, the crux of his discussion is based on solid science. His interviews are with people who are in a position to gauge how we affect the world. Some of them are in place to prevent the recursion of nature into the habitat we've created for our species' benefit. One, archaeologist Arthur Demarest, is investigating a small segment of "the world without us", the site of the Maya realm. The 1600-year-long reign of those Central American people must have seemed "destined to thrive forever". The "spectacular, sudden collapse" took only a century. The return of the rainforest hides their existence from European invaders' eyes for another millennium.

Although Weisman's view of a dehumanised planet is compelling, almost desirable, he knows neither he nor his readership would be pleased by our extinction. We want to go on existing. Yet, he notes, "every four days, the world population rises by four million" - a clearly unsustainable rate of growth. Weisman has a scenario for survival, but its application would have to be nearly as instantaneous as his scenario of disappearance. His aim is curtailment of the human infestation - by the "draconian measure" of universal birth control. He argues that every human female must be limited to producing but one offspring. A challenging scenario, obviously, but one which he argues would reduce the planet's infesting species to a total of 1.6 billion by the end of this century. The number's validity may be disputed, but the goal is admirable. Could such a scenario possibly be envisioned, let alone implemented? It's that, he says, or a new wave of human colonisation - on other planets. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 6 August 2008
Reflections on the impermanence of man's creations and corporeal form have long been part of both Christian and Buddhist tradition as antidotes to human hubris. Weisman's very modern mortality tale however serves not God or enlightenment, but the Earth itself. What would happen in the unlikely event that everyone on the planet simply disappeared? What would the legacy of our species be in terms of our buildings and cultures? Would the natural environment simply take over again, or have we done irreparable damage to our planet? The fascinating television programme based on this book focused on the GCI-enhanced mouldering of our monuments and gradual crumbling of our cities. The book however is much more ambitious in its scope, addressing the far-reaching effect of Homo sapiens on our environment since we first stood upright on the African plains a relatively (in geological terms at least) short time ago. Weisman skilfully and entertainingly constructs this complex story with evidence from geology, archaeology, anthropology, physics, chemistry and the environmental sciences. It is a brilliantly-written tale of a planet both seriously ravaged but strangely resistant. Very few of our creations would actually survive our departure except our nuclear and toxic waste and, just as alarmingly, microscopic fragments of almost all the plastic we have ever produced (...even the plastic from toys we played with as children is apparently still out there somewhere). But, according to Weiseman, a planet that recovered from the Permian extinction 250 million years ago when 95% of everything alive was wiped up can surely survive a bunch of rather nasty Johnny-come-lately primates. Maybe a memento mori, a reminder of man's mortality, is indeed spiritually uplifting as Wiseman ends not with a gloomy prognosis (although he presents ample evidence to justify such a conclusion) but on an almost mystical and rather hopeful note.
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VINE VOICEon 21 October 2008
What would happen if humanity were to depart in one go from the Earth? How would the world manage without us? What would happen to the environment, our cities or fauna and flora?

One of the early sections in this book visits New York city and the team of men who are responsible for the never-ending pumping out of water from under the city, which constantly threatens to fill subways. The author then goes through the surprisingly rapid decline of the city. If you've ever stood in Manhattan gazing along the straight avenues and streets, and were amazed at the scale of construction, then this section will chill you right through. Later in the book, the author desctribes an abandoned seaside town in Cyrpus and it's decline in decrepitude.

A common thread thoughout the book concerns our effect on the environment and how long it would take for the Earth to correct itself if we were to depart. What about the ozone-damaging chemicals we pump out into the atmosphere, or the heavy metals and radioactive materials we dump and store without regard for future generations. The U.S. has silos of chock-full radioactive materials, surrounded by hundreds of warning signs. Due to the fact that human languages can mutate beyond recognition over just a few hundred years, the warning signs had to be desinged to be comprehensible to anyone who came across them. The author visits oil-refining facilities in Texas to examine what would happen there should humans suddenly stop running these facilities. A trip to Chernobyl is used to illustrate what could happen in the aftermath of a nuclear containment failure.

By examining the rise of humanity from the depths of Africa, the author looks for the most suitable candidate to suceed us once we depart. The sudden departure of megafauna from the Earth is examined and is attributed to the increasing ability of Homo Sapiens to hunt. From a research facility in England, we learn how farmland will handle the fertilisers and chemicals we have left behind, and how eventually, trees will once again cover the land.

The author has gathered together so many areas of science in this book. However, due to skillful mixing of the strands, we never suffer from fatigue. He admits that the sudden departure of humans from the planet is fantasy, but the science and research he has gathered is rock-solid, and often chilling. Weisman portrays the sheer disregard humanity has for its home and its other inhabitants, yet his book also reveals the immense capacity of the Earth to heal itself. This book lingers in the mind long after you have finished reading it.
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on 7 May 2012
The subject of this, and also the tv series, is what the world would be like if there were no humans - no catastrophe or epidemic, just gone. I think this interests many people given the numerous novels on zombie apocalypse, or other apocalyptic scenarios. What sets this aside from the tv series is that it discusses previous events without humans, and how the earth coped and species adapted. It only discusses in brief how cities will collapse and be overtaken - it also compares current desolated regions and how nature has become to reclaim the land.

Overall, a very insightful and interesting read, not a boring and repetitive as the tv series, I would highly recommend for anyone with an interested in the subject area.
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on 29 September 2013
Alan Weisman's international bestseller The World Without Us has been widely acclaimed for its ability to carry its readers on a journey described by the Independent as `Flesh-creepingly good fun...an expert-led fantasia of the post human planet''. But pick up the book, absorb its contents and you will realize that the Independent was being modest in their appraisal of Weisman's love of detail. Detail, which if taken time to digest, will lead you to an epiphany. Here is a world, where the very last human on Earth is no more. `Look around you, at today's world' writes Weisman. `Your house, your city. The surrounding land, the pavement underneath, and the soil hidden below that. Leave it all in place but extract the human beings. Wipe us out and see what's left''.
This thought- provoking scenario compels the reader to follow Weisman's string of consciousness which attempts to answer two fundamental questions. Would nature be forever impaired by our destructive practices or would it simply heal itself back to its pristine, pre-human state? Perhaps the only hint that once, we humans were, like many other species whose ancient skeletal frames are now carefully preserved in history museums across the globe, just transient guests in nature's abode. Perhaps the trace of our former presence embedded only in the faint glow of a surface scar, littered with thick cast iron and chromium alloys. But whilst such a prospect is bound to make readers fidget on their sofas uncomfortably, they're also given a light hearted image of fire hydrants, casually sprouting amidst cacti as one of the few remaining signs of `Earthly humanity'.
Weisman predicts how other forms of life would adapt without the presence of humans by giving as prime example natural reserves and sanctuaries where human intervention has been minimal. Such places include Białowieża Forest, the Kingman Reef, and the Palmyra Atoll. He also approaches important figures, some of them like biologist E. O. Wilson in an attempt to foresee the return of native plants by looking into the spread of pre historic vegetation. In Weisman's view, megafauna would flourish whilst animals which constitute urban pests such as rats would die off from a lack of a continual supply of food that is plentiful in today's modern cities.
The author uses the city of New York as an example of how nature would take over in almost no time, even over a developed urban area such as modern day New York. Weisman foresees how New York's roads will cave in as a result of underground streams flooding subway corridors and how native fauna and flora would slowly take over and out survive the invasive exotic species once brought forth by explorers insistent on diversifying the city's vegetation.
But Weisman also looks at the suburban world, and assesses the impact of nature on abandoned middle class, residential homes. Yet again, the eroding power of water will damage the existent wood frames and rusting the metals to the point of collapse. 500 years later and all that'll remain out of a house once booming with human activity are dishwasher parts, stainless steel cookware and plastic handles that stubbornly persist in becoming part of our 21st century legacy.
And yet, Weisman does not entirely embrace the notion that the world as a human construct is all doom and gloom. He delves into matters deep, as for instance when he raises the question of the legacy humans will have left behind and strives to reach a verdict in humanity's defence. Perhaps our impact on the natural environment and the planet as a whole has not been as detrimental, as it has changed the face of a planet, where someday our ancestral monuments will tell our story to an entirely new, and altogether different inhabitants.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 25 September 2012
In 1994 the author of this book wrote an article for Harper's about how nature had re-occupied the deserted area around Chernobyl. This was followed in 2005 by an article in Discover Magazine entitled "Earth Without People". The author then expanded this article and in 2007 published this book.

I had expected a different structure. On page one I expected the proposition that suddenly all humans on Earth had disappeared to be followed in the rest of the book of a description of how nature reclaimed the world. Instead this book is thematic, each chapter discussing a different topic, how humans have affected this topic and what would happen when humans cease to affect it.

There are also visits to various illustrative places. He begins with a primary forest on the Polish Belarus border as an example of a place mostly untouched by humans. There is a visit to a deserted holiday resort wedged between Turkish and Greek Cyprus; there is a visit to the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea, and there is a visit to Chernobyl. These are all examples of how nature reclaims, and reclaims quickly. There is also a visit to the huge petrochemical complex in southern Texas and a discussion of how this would degrade once humans are gone and then a discussion of how nuclear power stations would act in a human-less future. A visit to an agricultural research station in England shows how farming has shaped the land and how, once humans go, the farmland will return to nature.

My particular favourite concerns plastics, how some of them degrade and how many of them will not, to be left as alien objects in a natural world surviving into geologic time. And in the middle of the Pacific, in an area called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, there is a small-continent-sized floating garbage dump of plastics. I am also grateful to the author for introducing me to the term nurdles, which are small plastic pellets, manufactured in bulk.

All these topics are interesting and thought-provoking. However, the style is journalistic reportage, showing the book's origins in an extended magazine article. The people the author used as sources are named and fully described. For some readers this may be irritating. For those who do not find this style irritating and do not mind reading a series of interconnected magazine articles, I would recommend this book.
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on 8 October 2009
In recent years there have been a number of books and TV programmes (not to mention the movie 'I Am Legend' with Will Smith) about an Earth from which humans have been somehow removed. Most of them have titles like 'Earth Without People' or 'Life After People'. This book will probably find a limited readership because its title suggest a similar scenario. And that is a pity, because the content is actually much more important, and it deserves to reach a much wider audience than it will at present. We've all heard of how sea turtles die because they mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and ingest them. But have you heard of the North Pacific Gyre, an area the size of a small continent, covered with floating refuse - bottles, tangles of fish nets and monofilament line, six-pack rings, Cling film, deflated balloons. . . And have you heard of 'nurdles'? I hadn't, until I read this book. Plastics, in particular, are a huge problem and threat to marine life - and ultimately to us. Such matters cry out for much greater exposure, but they will be lost to many because of this book's title. Yes, the author does touch upon what would happen if we all somehow miraculously vanished, and these sections make interesting reading. But generally this is used for a vehicle to bring up serious ecological issues that concern us TODAY, and it is a pity that all politicians can't be made to read it!

One minor quibble is the author's predilection for describing his interviewees: do we really need to know that "He rummages in a desk drawer, then closes it"? What does this add? But don't let that put you off. This is an important book, containing a huge mass of research and information, hidden behind a misleading title.
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on 8 October 2009
In recent years there have been a number of books and TV programmes (not to mention the movie 'I Am Legend' with Will Smith) about an Earth from which humans have been removed. Most of them have titles like 'Earth Without People' or 'Life After People'. This book will probably find a limited readership because its title suggest a similar scenario. And that is a pity, because the content is actually much more important, and it deserves to reach a much wider audience than it will at present. We've all heard of how sea turtles die because they mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and ingest them. But have you heard of the North Pacific Gyre, an area the size of a small continent, covered with floating refuse - bottles, tangles of fish nets and monofilament line, six-pack rings, Cling film, deflated balloons. . . And have you heard of 'nurdles'? I hadn't, until I read this book. Plastics, in particular, are a huge problem and threat to marine life - and ultimately to us. Such matters cry out for much greater exposure, but they will be lost to many because of this book's title. Yes, the author does touch upon what would happen if we all somehow miraculously vanished, and these sections make interesting reading. But generally this is used for a vehicle to bring up serious ecological issues that concern us TODAY, and it is a pity that all politicians can't be made to read it!

One minor quibble is the author's predilection for describing his interviewees: do we really need to know that "He rummages in a desk drawer, then closes it"? What does this add? But don't let that put you off. This is an important book, containing a huge mass of research and information, hidden behind a misleading title.
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VINE VOICEon 20 April 2009
I can't remember where I heard about this book, but as soon as I did I pre-ordered it and eagerly awaited its arrival.

On arrival I immediately got down to reading it and was impressed by the vast majority of the chapters. I was amazed at just how quickly structures that seem as if they would last for an eternity, such as New York City, would succumb to such things as water and temperature. I was also amazed to read just how much our continuing existence on this planet is about our constant battle to subdue nature and that after we have gone nature will quickly take back what it has lost with little sign of our existence in as little as a few hundred years.

On reading this book I was not only amazed at our constant battle with nature, but also at how much humankind is affecting the environment. I like all others who read am aware of such things as global warming, CFCs, Carbon Sequestration etc, all of which are mentioned in this book. But, I was until reading this book sitting blissfully unaware of plastics and little things like exfoliates, being such as issue. It had never occurred to me that long after we are gone there will be a layer of plastics and exfoliates sitting in between layers on sandstone in the rock - a weird quirk in the principle of superposition.

There was however, a few chapters that did not interest me in the slightest. These chapters talked about ecology in a detached, academic sense. Whilst ecology interests me and I was intrigued to know how quickly some species would re-establish themselves in environments that they have been hunted out of when the authors uses paleontological and paloeclimatic references then it looses me because it becomes too academic and dry for a popular science book.

Overall, this book is very good and amazed me more than it bored me. The only disappointment is when it became a bit too academic and dry when talking about all things ecological.
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"Worldwide, every four days human population rises by 1 million." - Author Alan Weisman in THE WORLD WITHOUT US

But, what if the Earth's humans disappeared? This is the theme of THE WORLD WITHOUT US, a book version of what you may have seen on Life After People [2008] (REGION 1) (NTSC) or National Geographic: Aftermath - Population Zero [2008] (REGION 1) (NTSC).

Weisman approaches his subject from two perspectives; what the Earth might have looked like had humans not evolved, and what would likely happen to the world and, more specifically, human creations, if we were to suddenly blink out of existence because of, say, a massive, species-ending plague. To illustrate the former is more difficult as Homo sapiens is so ubiquitous across the planet, but the author points to the Bialowieza Puszcza forest on Poland's eastern border and Chambura Gorge in Uganda as roughly representative sites. To illustrate the latter is much easier as one only has to look as far as Pripyat, abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, unoccupied Varosha on Cyprus isolated between the Turkish and Greek zones, the depopulated DMZ between North and South Korea, or New England's temperate forest, now larger than it was in 1776 due to a depopulation trend after the Civil War.

Weisman was perhaps at his most interesting when describing what would happen to humankind's creations in its absence. Almost charming, especially to a Los Angeles area resident such as myself, is the narrative picture of the dissolution of New York City infrastructure as vegetation and wildlife reclaim the environment; gee, what a pity. On the other hand, the demise of oil refinery complexes and nuclear power stations has apocalyptic potential. Regarding the huge refinery complex in Texas City, TX:

"With no one to monitor controls or the computers, some reactions would run away and go boom. You would get a fire, and then a domino effect, since there'd be nothing to stop it ... All the pipes would be conduits for fires ... That blaze could possibly go for weeks ... If this happened to every plant in the world, imagine the amount of pollutants ... They would also release chlorinated compounds like dioxins and furans from burning plastics. And you'd get lead, chromium and mercury attached to the soot ... the clouds would disperse through the world. The next generation of plants and animals, the ones that didn't die, might need to mutate in ways that could impact evolution."

Of course, the book's subject matter opens the way for a discussion of the durable poisons that humans have injected into the environment and which will persist with us or without us: waste from nuclear generating plants, plastic polymers of all sorts, polychlorinated biphenyls, phosphate and nitrate fertilizers, and fluorocarbons. It's enough to make Al Gore weep, or at least go on the stump selling carbon offsets.

And what are the chances that every last member of the human race might cease to exist? Very slim in the relative short term as there are survivors of even the most virulent and infectious disease agents. But past human societies have achieved near extinction. Consider the Mayans, for example, whose culture dominated Central America for 1600 years before virtually vanishing in the eighth century AD for reasons not yet completely understood.

Perhaps the most imaginatively stimulating subtopic concerns the evidence of our existence that extraterrestrials at large might stumble across. The author makes reference to the "I Love Lucy" television shows that have been beaming to the stars for years and will reach the edge of our galaxy in 2450 AD. And then there's the Golden Record, a gold-plated copper analog disc on which are recorded both sounds and images of the Human Race, carried on both the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft as they speed away from the Solar System.

While THE WORLD WITHOUT US seemed slightly disorganized, and the few photos included highlighted the fact that more would have added value to the whole, it was throughout both thought-provoking and instructive. And though the phrase "built to last" has no meaning whatsoever on the cosmic scale, I certainly won't be tempted to toss my empty water bottle out the window the next time I drive through a national park.
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