Earth Sans Earthlings

What will our planet be like post people?

By Victoria Schlesinger

Imagine if humans disappeared from Earth. All of us. In the blink of an eye. That’s just what science journalist Alan Weisman does for 311 pages in his bracing new book The World Without Us, published by St. Martin’s Press.

Broaching the notion in cheerful, fluid prose, Weisman surmises how planet Earth would carry on in the absence of humans, handily dismantling the edifices and accomplishments we hold most dear. The New York City subway system will flood two days after people vanish. In another 250 years the same city’s bridges will collapse and dams the world over crumble. Cockroaches will not rule the world, but instead they’ll retreat to warmer climes, where the exploding migratory bird population will feast on them. Ground into ever-finer particles, plastic will remain here until a microbe evolves that can digest it. And some 100,000 years from now atmospheric carbon dioxide will return to its pre-human level.

Weisman tackles the fantastical scenario by exploring examples of destruction, abandonment and refuge, such as the mass demise of American megafauna after people arrived 13,000 years ago; the 30-year decay of lavish, abandoned resorts in Cyprus; and a glimpse of Europe’s sole remaining swatch of old growth lowland forest, still in tact thanks to its national park status.

While the notion of human disappearance is radical, Weisman shows us the result is eerily familiar. Life on Earth will rush forward to occupy the large niches our absence creates.  Forces of nature will erode human construction, restoring them to simple particles. In time new species will evolve and fight to dominate the food chain, and little trace of intelligent creation will remain on Earth. Finally, in 5 billion years, our ever-expanding Sun will consume all of this resilient creation. And the greatest shame, Weisman quietly suggests, will be if we’re not there to see it.

See more articles from In Depth

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

Not a Soul in Sight »
« The Gene of the Crop

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter