The World Without Us

The World Without Us

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by Alan Weisman

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

In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman offers an utterly original approach to questions of humanity's impact on the planet: he asks us to envision our Earth, without us.In this far-reaching narrative, Weisman explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without

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

In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman offers an utterly original approach to questions of humanity's impact on the planet: he asks us to envision our Earth, without us.In this far-reaching narrative, Weisman explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence; which everyday items may become immortalized as fossils; how copper pipes and wiring would be crushed into mere seams of reddish rock; why some of our earliest buildings might be the last architecture left; and how plastic, bronze sculpture, radio waves, and some man-made molecules may be our most lasting gifts to the universe.
The World Without Us reveals how, just days after humans disappear, floods in New York's subways would start eroding the city's foundations, and how, as the world's cities crumble, asphalt jungles would give way to real ones. It describes the distinct ways that organic and chemically treated farms would revert to wild, how billions more birds would flourish, and how cockroaches in unheated cities would perish without us. Drawing on the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, art conservators, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, religious leaders from rabbis to the Dali Lama, and paleontologists---who describe a prehuman world inhabited by megafauna like giant sloths that stood taller than mammoths---Weisman illustrates what the planet might be like today, if not for us.
From places already devoid of humans (a last fragment of primeval European forest; the Korean DMZ; Chernobyl), Weisman reveals Earth's tremendous capacity for self-healing. As he shows which human devastations are indelible, and which examples of our highest art and culture would endure longest, Weisman's narrative ultimately drives toward a radical but persuasive solution that needn't depend on our demise. It is narrative nonfiction at its finest, and in posing an irresistible concept with both gravity and a highly readable touch, it looks deeply at our effects on the planet in a way that no other book has.

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Editorial Reviews

Starting with the chilling premise of our sudden extinction, Alan Weisman combines science with speculation to take us on an audacious tour of what the planet might be like without us. Drawing upon the expertise of engineers, naturalists, scientists, zoologists, oil refiners, biologists, religious leaders, and others, Weisman weaves an evocative narrative that's like a chilling walk through a haunted house -- we witness the disintegration of homes and cities, watch as species wax and wane. But what a walk it is. Weisman has given us a colorful and endlessly fascinating fantasy that's also a shocking environmental wake-up call.

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Chapter One

A Lingering Scent of Eden

You may never have heard of the Bialowieza Puszcza. But if you were raised somewhere in the temperate swathe that crosses much of North America, Japan, Korea, Russia, several former Soviet republics, parts of China, Turkey, and Eastern and Western Europe—including the British Isles—something within you remembers it. If instead you were born to tundra or desert,subtropics or tropics, pampas or savannas, there are still places on Earth kindred to this puszcza to stir your memory, too. Puszcza, an old Polish word, means forest primeval. Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, the half-million acres of the Bialowieza Puszcza contain Europe’s last remaining fragment of old-growth, lowland wilderness. Think of themisty, brooding forest that loomed behind your eyelids when, as a child, someone read you the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Here, ash and linden trees tower nearly 150 feet, their huge canopies shading a moist, tangled understory of hornbeams, ferns, swamp alders and crockery-sized fungi. Oaks, shrouded with half a millennium of moss, grow so immense here that great spotted woodpeckers store spruce cones in their three-inch-deep bark furrows. The air, thick and cool, is draped with silence that parts briefly for a nutcracker’s croak, a pygmy owl’s low whistle, or a wolf’s wail, then returns to stillness.

The fragrance that wafts from eons of accumulated mulch in the forest’s core hearkens to fertility’s very origins. In the Bialowieza, the profusion of life owes much to all that is dead. Almost a quarter of the organic mass aboveground is inassorted stages of decay—more than 50 cubic yards of decomposing trunks and fallen branches on every acre, nourishing thousands of species of mushrooms, lichens, bark beetles, grubs, and microbes that are missing from the orderly, managed woodlands that pass as forests elsewhere.

Together those species stock a sylvan larder that provides for weasels, pine martens, raccoons, badgers, otters, fox, lynx,wolves, roe deer, elk, and eagles. More kinds of life are found here than anywhere else on the continent—yet there are no surrounding mountains or sheltering valleys to form unique niches for endemic species. The Bialowieza Puszcza is simplya relic of what once stretched east to Siberia and west to Ireland.

The existence in Europe of such a legacy of unbroken biological antiquity owes, unsurprisingly, to high privilege. During the 14th century, a Lithuanian duke named Jagiello, having successfully allied his grand duchy with the Kingdom of Poland, declared the forest a royal hunting preserve. For centuries, it stayed that way. When the Polish-Lithuanian unionwas finally subsumed by Russia, the Bialowieza became the private domain of the tsars. Although occupying Germans took lumber and slaughtered game during World War I, a pristine core was left intact, which in 1921 became a Polish national park. The timber pillaging resumed briefly under the Soviets, but when the Nazis invaded, a nature fanatic named Hermann Göring decreed the entire preserve off-limits, except by his pleasure.

Following World War II, a reportedly drunken Josef Stalin agreed one evening in Warsaw to let Poland retain two-.fifths of the forest. Little else changed under communist rule, except for construction of some elite hunting dachas—in one of which,Viskuli, an agreement was signed in 1991 dissolving the Soviet Union into free states. Yet, as it turns out, this ancient sanctuary is more threatened under Polish democracy and Belarusian independence than it was during seven centuries of monarchs and dictators. Forestry ministries in both countries tout increased management to preserve the Puszcza’s health. Management, however, often turns out to be a euphemism for culling—and selling—mature hardwoods that otherwise would one day return a windfall of nutrients to the forest.

It is startling to think that all Europe once looked like this Puszcza. To enter it is to realize that most of us were bred to a pale copy of what nature intended. Seeing alders with trunks seven feet wide, or walking through stands of the tallest trees here—gigantic Norway spruce, shaggy as Methuselah—should seem as exotic as the Amazon or Antarctica to someone raised among the comparatively puny, second-growth woodlands found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Instead, what’s astonishing is how primally familiar it feels. And, on some cellular level, how complete.

Andrzej Bobiec recognized it instantly. As a forestry student in Krakow, he’d been trained to manage forests for maximum productivity, which included removing excess organic litter lest it harbor pests like bark beetles. Then, on a visit here he was stunned to discover 10 times more biodiversity than in any forest he’d ever seen.

It was the only place left with all nine European woodpecker species, because, he realized, some of them only nest in hollow, dying trees. They can’t survive in managed forests, he argued to his forestry professors. “The Bialowieza Puszcza has managed itself perfectly well for millennia.

The husky, bearded young Polish forester became instead a forest ecologist. He was hired by the Polish national park service. Eventually, he was .red for protesting management plans that chipped ever closer to the pristine core of the Puszcza. In various international journals, he blistered official policies that asserted that forests will die without our thoughtful help, or that justified cutting timber in the Bialowieza’s surrounding buffer to reestablish the primeval character of stands. Such convoluted thinking, he accused, was rampant among Europeans who have hardly any memory of forested wilderness.

To keep his own memory connected, for years he daily laced his leather boots and hiked through his beloved Puszcza. Yet although he ferociously defends those parts of this forest still undisturbed by man, Andrzej Bobiec can’t help being seduced by his own human nature.

Alone in the woods, Bobiec enters into communion with fellow Homo sapiens through the ages. A wilderness this pure is a blank slate to record human passage: a record he has learned to read. Charcoal layers in the soil show him where gamesmen onceused fire to clear parts of the forest for browse. Stands of birch and trembling aspen attest to a time when Jagiello’s descendants were distracted from hunting, perhaps by war, long enough for these sun-seeking species to recolonize game clearings. In their shade grow telltale seedlings of the hardwoods that were here before them. Gradually, these will crowd out thebirch and aspen, until it will be as if they were never gone.

Whenever Bobiec happens on an anomalous shrub like hawthorn or on an old apple tree, he knows he’s in the presence of the ghost of a log house long ago devoured by the same microbes that can turn the giant trees here back into soil. Any lone, massive oak he finds growing from a low, clover-covered mound marks a crematorium. Its roots have drawn nourishment from the ashes of Slavic ancestors of today’s Belorusians, who came from the east 900 years ago. On the northwest edge of the forest,Jews from five surrounding shtetls buried their dead. Their sandstone and granite headstones from the 1850s, mossy and tumbled by roots, have already worn so smooth that they’ve begun to resemble the pebbles left by their mourning relatives, who themselves long ago departed.

Andrzej Bobiec passes through a blue-green glade of Scots pine, barely a mile from the Belarusian border. The waning October afternoon is so hushed, he can hear snowflakes alight. Suddenly, there’s a crashing in the underbrush, and a dozen wisent—Bison bonasus, European bison—burst from where they’ve been browsing on young shoots. Steaming and pawing, their huge black eyes glance just long enough for them to do what their own ancestors discovered they must upon encountering one of these deceptively frail bipeds: they flee.

Just 600 wisent remain in the wild, nearly all of them here—or just half, depending on what’s meant by here. An iron curtain bisects this paradise, erected by the Soviets in 1980 along the border to thwart escapees to Poland’s renegade Solidaritymovement. Although wolves dig under it, and roe deer and elk are believed to leap it, the herd of these largest of Europe’smammals the world without us remains divided, and with it, its gene pool—divided and mortally diminished, some zoologists fear. Once, following World War I, bison from zoos were brought here to replenish a species nearly extirpated by hungry soldiers. Now, a remnant of a Cold War threatens them again.

Belarus, which well after communism’s collapse has yet to remove statues of Lenin, also shows no inclination to dismantle the fence, especially as Poland’s border is now the European Union’s. Although just 14 kilometers separate the two countries’ park headquarters, to see the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, as it is called in Belorusian, a foreign visitor must drive 100 miles south, take a train across the border to the city of Brest, submit to pointless interrogation, and hire a car to drive back north. Andrzej Bobiec’s Belorusian counterpart and fellow activist, Heorhi Kazulka, is a pale, sallow invertebrate biologist and former deputy director of Belarus’s side of the primeval forest. He was also .red by his own country’s park service, for challenging one of the latest park additions—a sawmill. He cannot risk being seen with Westerners. Inside the Brezhnev-era tenement where he lives at the forest’s edge, he apologetically offers visitors tea and discusses his dream of an international peace park where bison and moose would roam and breed freely.

The Pushcha’s colossal trees are the same as those in Poland; the same buttercups, lichens, and enormous oak leaves; the same circling white-tailed eagles, heedless of the razor-wire barrier below. In fact, on both sides, the forest is actually growing, as peasant populations leave shrinking villages for cities. In this moist climate, birch and aspen quickly invade their fallow potato fields; within just two decades, farmland gives way to woodland. Under the canopy of the pioneering trees, oak, maple, linden, elm, and spruce regenerate. Given 500 years without people, a true forest could return.

The thought of rural Europe reverting one day to original forest is heartening. But unless the last humans remember to first remove Belarus’s iron curtain, its bison may wither away with them.

Excerpted from The World Without Us. By Alan Weisman
Copyright © 2007 by Alan Weisman.
Published in the United States by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.

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The World Without Us 3.8 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 50 reviews.
MelBam More than 1 year ago
The World Without Us is an excellent book that grasps the readers mind. It shows the earth today in a journey to return to its former self. The impact of humans on earth is great topic and this book was a real eye opener. I found it to be very detailed and it contained solid facts that were backed up by great research. I found it hard to understand at some point where Mr.Weisman deviates from the topic. The topics on there own are very good minus the fact that it feels very unorganized. There is no general thesis but it provides interesting points. once I got into the book the facts and images came swirling out. Overall it is a great book that I highly recommend to anyone interested in the world. I give this book 3.5 uninhabited earths out of 5.
KCNY More than 1 year ago
If you happen to be the last surviving human, after we do ourselves in, Alan Wiseman's book can serve as an interesting travel guide. I found his research authoritative and compelling. He introduced me to many fascinating places on our planet that will return to their primal state as havens teaming with life in the Post Human world. How about taking up residence in Chernobyl one day. This book makes a strong case that the planet is not in peril, it's just waiting for us to go!
Anonymous 17 days ago
thespasticone More than 1 year ago
Only half-way done, and a great book. I didn't realize it was quite so much a "message" book, but Weisman is subtle enough with the message to not lose the storyline or the hook.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When first buying the book The World Without Us I was very intrigued because the environment impact humans have had on the Earth is immense and has a lot to do with the class I purchased it for, AP Environmental science. The cover itself fascinated me as well and I found it captivating. While reading this book I found myself lost in the different topics and quick change from ideas. I found this book to be rather advanced for my knowledge and seemed to be focused more on how humans construct things as opposed to recovery of wildlife and the Earth itself. Although there was many extremely interesting facts and statistics in regard to how the Earth would recover if suddenly all human life have failed to exist most of the book did not follow what, I personally, was looking for. I think partially since this book had received such high reviews from reliable sources, spent 9 weeks in the top ten NY Best Seller’s List, I had expectations that it did not fill. Weisman’s exploration of the hypothetical extinction of humans is not explored as thoroughly as I would’ve liked. There was a lot of information about plastic, nuclear waste, effects of radiation and all of the negative things humans do but obviously was already aware of these. The organization used to put together the chapters and Parts in the book had me very lost, when looking at the table of contents I thought it all would’ve flowed fluidly and fit together which was not the case. Overall the book was not what I was looking for and I only found certain parts of it to fit what I was. It definitely was chalk full of relevant information just not necessarily relevant to what I wanted to know. I would give this book a 2.5/5 or 3 but I think other people may like it a lot more than I did especially if they could pay attention to what I would consider a dry book. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There's no real information here, nothing about the complex maintenance necessary to human-built civilization, and no verifiable detail about how the rest of the life on this planet would take over if all humans suddenly just disappeared. It's clearly a progressive's fear fantasy in which the author is trying to convince us to reduce our lives so that other (non-human) life has more resources.
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