The World Without Us

The World Without Us

by Alan Weisman


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Time #1 Nonfiction Book of 2007

Entertainment Weekly #1 Nonfiction Book of 2007

Finalist for the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award

Salon Book Awards 2007

Amazon Top 100 Editors' Picks of 2007 (#4)

Barnes and Noble 10 Best of 2007: Politics and Current Affairs

Kansas City Star's Top 100 Books of the Year 2007

Mother Jones' Favorite Books of 2007

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Best Books of the Year 2007

Hudson's Best Books of 2007

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Books of 2007

St. Paul Pioneer Press Best Books of 2007

If human beings disappeared instantaneously from the Earth, what would happen? How would the planet reclaim its surface? What creatures would emerge from the dark and swarm? How would our treasured structures—our tunnels, our bridges, our homes, our monuments—survive the unmitigated impact of a planet without our intervention? In his revelatory, bestselling account, Alan Weisman draws on every field of science to present an environmental assessment like no other, the most affecting portrait yet of humankind's place on this planet.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312427900
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/05/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 99,098
Product dimensions: 8.14(w) x 7.78(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

Alan Weisman is an award-winning journalist whose reports have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Discover, and on NPR, among others. A former contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, he is a senior radio producer for Homelands Productions and teaches international journalism at the University of Arizona. His essay "Earth Without People" (Discover magazine, February 2005), on which The World Without Us expands, was selected for Best American Science Writing 2006.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents


Prelude: A Monkey Koan,
1 A Lingering Scent of Eden,
2 Unbuilding Our Home,
3 The City Without Us,
4 The World Just Before Us,
5 The Lost Menagerie,
6 The African Paradox,
7 What Falls Apart,
8 What Lasts,
9 Polymers Are Forever,
10 The Petro Patch,
11 The World Without Farms,
12 The Fate of Ancient and Modern Wonders of the World,
13 The World Without War,
14 Wings Without Us,
15 Hot Legacy,
16 Our Geologic Record,
17 Where Do We Go from Here?,
18 Art Beyond Us,
19 The Sea Cradle,
Coda: Our Earth, Our Souls,
Select Bibliography,

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The World Without Us 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 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!
abruser on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Weisman goes into elaborate detail about what the earth process would look like is human being ceased to exist. It is both informative and poetic. The book can instill a feeling of hopelessness for humanity but it is good to be informed.
schatzi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is normally the kind of book that would fascinate me, but for some reason I never really got into this book. Perhaps it was the writer's style; for having such interesting material at his fingertips, he wrote in a very dry way. Whatever the reason, it took me over a year to finish this book, and that was just because I forced myself to read a little bit at a time.
Beej415 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a refreshing perspective on the effects (modern) humans are having on the environment. The beginning chapter on the fate of New York City is an impressive statement of the sensitive balance between humans' ability to manipulate the natural world to our ends and nature's awesome power to thrive. Equally amazing is the chapter that details theories of the origins of humans and the surprising revelation that periods of global warming and cooling may be the reason humans exist at all. All in all a very captivating book.
LizPhoto on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to love this book but I just couldn't. The story really did not mesh well and seemed to jump around from topic to topic. The issues in "The World Without Us", are extremely important and timely considering all the natural and nuclear disasters that have come about in the last few years. THe questions are asked but no answer are really given. I think a good way to sum up the book is that we are trashing the one and only earth we have and if we don't do things to change it, regardless if humans exist or not were screwed.
cathymoore on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a very interesting book, which addresses some pressing environmental issues. It appears that a "world without us" would spend much of its first few thousand years healing and repairing itself from the destruction wrought on it by humans over the short period of time we spent on Earth. Weisman travels from Polish forests, to Chernobyl, to Pacific coral atolls via many places inbetween revealing the havoc humans have caused to Earths ecological balance, and asking experts whether they think if humans disappeared tomorrow, what would remain of us, how long would it take for nature to re-assert it itself? The naswers seem in general to be not very much and not very long. The pressing issue here really is whether we can adapt our carbon belching, fossil fuel dependant, wasteful society before we actually manage to send ourselves extinct. While Weisman's suggestion in the final chapter sticks in the throat, it might just work.
clif_hiker on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this to be an easy and enjoyable read... swinging from science fiction apocalypticism to hard core environmentalism. Eye opening in a lot of ways. The information about plastic was especially interesting, that there are some 4000 factories in India that make nothing but plastic grocery sacks, and that most of that plastic is still here, somewhere, on Earth.Whether this book makes any impact or not remains to be seen, but I'm pretty sure the author was writing more to entertain than anything else.Recommended, although can be depressing at times.
mariah2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you like stories that terrify you, then this is the book for you. Take heed, however, this is not a book you can close the cover on if you wish to escape the intensity of the story within. This story is not based on fiction but on meticulously researched facts. In this book you will read the terrifying truth of how the human race has changed the planet, and a few suggestions on how we can start to address some of the damage we have done. This book is a must read for those interested in the health of our planet, and even more of a must read for those that think our planet has no health problems at all.
linedog1848 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fun and eye-opening thought experiment. Weisman does a great job showing the damage we're doing to the planet, and is able to leave the reader with a sense of responsibility to act even though the point of the book as a whole focuses on the insignificance of our activities when compared to the resilience of nature and the scale of geologic time. This book is hopeful and encouraging, illuminating the huge environmental consequences of human activity without being fatalistic.
gonzobrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It¿s an easy speculation to say that without humans, the earth will restore, recleanse, rectify itself. Indeed, in his book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman repeatedly hints to the reader that the world doesn¿t need us as much as we need it. But Weisman goes beyond the obvious implication and details just how incredibly short-sighted we humans have been in just a brief time on this planet.Weisman thoroughly stresses home the point that despite our tendencies toward toxicity, life will indeed find a way, whether it be millennia or billennia. There are a whole lot of ideas to take away from this thought experiment, for example the futility of our marvelous infrastructure once we are no longer around to monitor it; what will happen when wonders like the Chunnel, the Panama Canal, our volatile oil refineries and nuclear reactors/repositories as well as our subways have no one to flip the off switch or close the valve? How will the unmeasurable amount of polymers (plastic) dumped in our oceans annually begin to degrade, and what are the hopes of a hungry microbe that evolves the ability to feed on them?Of the many thought provoking speculations and projections Weisman so meticulously researches and thoughtfully relates, he proposes the irony that the realization of our collective death may just perhaps contribute to the saving of ourselves. Interviewing the organizer of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, and yes it it¿s a real organization, he postulates that if humans were really serious about curbing overpopulation, thereby eliminating juvenile delinquency among other issues, we might just have an epiphany:" ¿spiritual awakening would replace panic, because a dawning realization that as human life drew to a close, it was improving. There would be more than enough to eat, and resources would again be plentiful, including water. The seas would replenish. Because new housing wouln¿t be necessary, so would forests and wetlands. ¿Like retired business executives who suddenly find serenity by tending a garden, Knight envisions us spending our remaining time helping rid an increasingly natural world of unsightly and now useless clutter, in pursuit of which we¿d once swapped something alive and lovely."As improbable it may be that people would go to such extremes or even somehow suddenly become extinct, Weisman¿s book is an ambitious and enlightening experiment that brings us closer to acknowledging our impact upon and responsibility to the world, while we¿re still with it.
woodge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When I told people I was reading this non-fiction book and that the premise was "What would happen to the earth if the human race suddenly vanished?" the usual response was to say something like, "So it's fiction?"Ugh. NO.First of all, to understand what could happen, we have to understand what has already happened so far. And then, backed up by scientific knowledge from various experts in various fields, the author explains a very likely outcome of what would happen if we were just -- poof -- gone. This book is absolutely fascinating. So much so, that I was routinely ignoring the fantasy fiction I was concurrently reading and kept heading back to this book. I don't often find non-fiction page-turners but this one qualifies. And along with fascinating, this book is frequently alarming -- but not in a strident, self-righteous tone or anything like that. This book presented me with many facts about the earth and our impact on it in a straightforward manner that just makes your proverbial jaw drop. The two most alarming chapters for me were Chapter 9: Polymers Are Forever and Chapter 15: Hot Legacy. In the former I learned all about the plastic refuse that is currently clogging our oceans. A LOT of plastic, mind-boggling... the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was mentioned and then I learned that there are at least six other large plastic-strewn gyres*.So. That's bad. But then along comes Chapter 15 which goes into detail about radioactive waste, how much of it we have, what we're doing with it, and just how bad it is. HOLY CRAP. Take Uranium-238, for example. This "depleted" version of U-235 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. In the United States alone, there's at least a half-million tons of it. U-238 is an unusually dense metal, so we've been making armor-piercing bullets out of it. (They can pierce tank armor.) There's enough concentrated U-238 in the bullet points that radioactivity in the ashen debris can exceed 1,000 times the normal background level. They'll emit radiation for more years than the planet likely has left. (That is, this stuff will still be radioactive when 4 or 5 billion years from now our sun expands to a red giant and incinerates the inner planets in our solar system. Nice.)I could go on but suffice it to say that this book should be required reading. An excellent book.*Oceanography. a ringlike system of ocean currents rotating clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.
updraught on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Some very interesting insights into how human civilisation works today, worked in the past and on the time scale of its impact. In some places the book seems to lose its focus on the latter aspect; however, still a good read.
EowynA on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an exercise in speculative non-fiction. RecommendedThe author has taken what was originally an essay, and expanded it into a book. It is a dissertaion on how we have changed the world around us, and how permanent, or not, those changes are. In some cases, such as the Green line between the Turks and the Greeks in Cyprus. It is a classic tale of the reclamation of land by the wild. A forest burned several years ago, and now the hillside is covered with poppies that have not been common there for ages. The forest in Poland that is the last remnant of the Northern European forest is described in terms almost lyrical. In some ways it reminded me of the descriptions of forest in "Freckles" and "Girl of the Limberlost".The information about the struggle of New York to stay as it is - the pumps removing the underground rivers, the park service removing seedlings, and the squirrels stealing all the seeds from the forest remnant there. Those parts are encouraging. But the description of the effect of plastic on the ocean life is very depressing. Plastic became a force of nature after WWII, but nature has not figured out what to do with it. It is eaten by most sea creatures, and if they are lucky, they excrete it. If not, it lodges in their gut, causing a fatal constipation. That is discouraging. It is hard to read the book in one sitting. The scenarios are supported by examples, but rarely statistics (making it more readable than "An Inconvenient Truth"). It has only touched on Climate Change, so far. The encouraging thing is that he talks of people who are studying the problems, and looking for solutions.
gkleinman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book, only it's way too long and meanders way too much. The book was based on an essay by Weisman and after reading the entire book I wished I had just read the essay.
tgraettinger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Weisman gives an interesting account of how the world would change if suddenly we (humans) weren't here. My greatest surprise was in how the cities would deteriorate rapidly, with high-rises toppling over their neighbors like big, wide trees. I also found it interesting how the NY subways would flood with water in a scant few days without power to run the pumps that keep them dry. It's amazing to me, if not surprising, how important power/electricity is in maintaining our modern living spaces. Nature is always trying to beget more nature, and it will win in the long run - I hope.
brcloyd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the NPR interview with the author and the premise is outstanding, but I got stuck halfway. Maybe I just couldn't get on with the idea that there wouldn't be human around to muck things up or maintain what's been made. Or maybe I was just spurred on to make things better...
FredB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A wide-ranging book discussing what would happen if all humans died. How fast would any trace of us disappear. The author traveled the world to write this book, including the DMZ of the Korean Peninsula, Chernobyl, a very remote coral reef in the Pacific, etc. It's interesting to imagine what would happen to all of those landfills and plastic. One of the most durable items is the bronze sculptures humans have created.
bibliolana on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating! Describes what would happen to the earth if humans were gone. Some surprising scenarios. Very readible nonfiction.
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