Journal Bookshelf

In Review

The World Without Us

by Alan Weisman

320 pages
Thomas Dunne Books, 2007

book cover thumbnailThere is something wistful in the title of Alan Weisman’s sweeping account of what would become of Earth if humans were to disappear in one big bang – a very unlikely event – sometime in the foreseeable future. The World Without Us, however, would most likely not be a world simply absent of humans. Chances are that if we disappear, we will take a good many innocent bystanders with us. In fact, our own demise may be a direct result of our inability to live in some kind of sustainable relationship with the natural world. (And I use the word “sustainable” not to describe a desired state, but merely one in which our species survives.) The crucial question, Weisman writes, is “whether we humans can make it through what many scientists call this planet’s latest great extinction – make it through, and bring the rest of Life with us rather than tear it down.”

There is something all too self-interested in the way we humans typically imagine the end – that somehow Earth needs us. There’s a hubris in the idea that the world without us will somehow be worse off because we humans aren’t here or that it will be gone altogether, as Judeo-Christian teleology asserts. Weisman dispels such notions. And they aren’t fantasies.

In the event that we do vacate the planet without destroying it, the flora and fauna left behind will waste little time recolonizing our farms, cities, and factories. From war zones to nuclear dead zones, nature has proved to be remarkably resilient. The demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea has become a wintering site for the red-crowned crane – one of the rarest on earth. Nicaragua’s lobster beds and Caribbean pine experienced a renaissance during the Contra war of the 1980s when shellfish and timber exploitation ceased along the Miskito Coast. Perhaps most famously, Chernobyl has become a kind of wildlife refuge, suggesting that it is not nuclear Armageddon but rather our “overindulged lifestyle” that may be the greatest threat to the planet. Some environmentalists have even argued that placing nuclear material in environmentally sensitive areas will help protect those areas from man’s overreaching appetite.

Not exactly bedtime reading, though dreamy in a certain way, Weisman’s book lets you see the end and what might be beyond it without having to worry too much that you’ll be around when things really get ugly.

—Adam Federman

Notes From a Catastrophe

by Elizabeth Kolbert

240 pages
Bloomsbury USA, 2006

I’m on my third trip through Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, appreciating its power and grace more with every read. A model of great writing, evenhanded reporting, and accessible science, I’ve assigned the book as required reading in three classes. Kolbert’s “catastrophe” is climate change; her notes are mostly in the form of conversations with experts who lay out the science and implications of global warming. Each interview is a tutorial in another aspect of climate change. Alaska’s melting permafrost and wave-eroded Inupiat settlements, Iceland’s retreating glaciers, Holland’s amphibious houses, vanished golden toads, northward-moving comma butterflies, and the shortening life cycle of mosquitoes are so compellingly described, it’s possible to forget to be terrified by what these lessons portend. Kolbert also captures the inane, insane doublespeak of the Bush administration’s climate policy: “We act, we learn, we act again.” The US government’s mantra is rhetorical gobbledygook that substitutes for action in this crisis. Kolbert, by contrast, makes every word meaningful: In 190 fluent pages, she tells us how global warming works, and shows us what’s at stake.

—Barbara Brower

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