NBCC Awards Finalists in Nonfiction: Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us”


This is the twenty-first in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Alan Weisman, “The World Without Us,” St. Martin’s.

A thought-experiment: What if the human race were to softly and silently vanish away, as if it had unexpectedly stumbled on a Boojum? This is the starting point for Alan Weisman’s brilliant, morbid, richly informative and grandly entertaining oddity “The World Without Us,” which imagines in rigorously researched—albeit hypothetical— detail what would become of the planet Earth if we weren’t on it anymore. Think of it as the alter ego of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road:” the complete destruction of humanity, but this time it’s nonfiction.

So much environmental literature bonks us repeatedly over the head with the fragility of our mother planet. The genius of Weisman’s conceit is that inverts that point of view and draws our attention instead to Earth’s mighty resilience. You don’t spend the book mourning humanity’s demise, you spend it cheering the blithe resilience with which the Earth shrugs off the damage we busy little humans managed to inflict on it over the course of our brief stewardship. In a bravura early chapter Weisman walks us through the future of one insignificant island—Manhattan—in the post-human era. Without constant pumping the subways flood. The flooding erodes the foundations of skyscrapers, which topple. Goosegrass cracks the asphalt. Sunlight makes PVC piping brittle. Without central heating the roaches perish, and moose cross the bridges and swim over across the Hudson River. For the final coup de grace, centuries from now, glaciers scrape Manhattan Island clean leaving only a geological record behind, “an unnatural concentration of reddish metal which briefly had assumed the form of wiring and plumbing.”

Weisman,who teaches journalism at the University of Arizona,roams the earth looking for spots relatively untouched by mankind, like Poland’s deep primeval forest, or the DMZ between North and South Korea, or the no-go zone around Chernobyl, models for how it would all go down in our absence. He talks to structural engineers and marine biologists and rabbis and paleontologists. “I did not write this book because I want human beings to disappear,” Weisman has said, “I wanted to remove us temporarily so we could see how well the world could and would heal itself, restore itself without us, and then figure out how can we reinsert ourselves in harmonious balance with everything else, not in mortal combat with everything else, which is what we have right now.”

“The World Without Us” is an “Ozymandias” for the Inconvenient Truth era. Though as it turns out humanity won’t even be leaving behind vast and trunkless legs of stone, or anything like them. Art will pass away, and only PCBs, and the Chunnel, will abide.—NBCC board member and Time Magazine book critic Lev Grossman