The World Without Us
By Alan Weisman
St. Martins, 336 pp., $24.95
In this strange book, author Alan Weisman explores what he calls the "fantasy" of a world without people. If humanity suddenly disappeared from the planet, what would our ecological legacy be? How long would our nuclear waste and weapons be dangerous, our bridges and roads be standing, our statues and paintings be intact?
What makes "The World Without Us" so peculiar is that Weisman offers no real context for the book, no rationale for probing this fantasy other than his unsubstantiated premise that people find it fascinating. Maybe they do. Reasons are imaginable. But none emerges in any compelling way to explain why it is important to know, for instance, that Manhattan's Lexington Avenue would become a river in 20 years.
Consequently, and quite apart from Weisman's lucid science writing and elegant narrative style, his book reads like a rarefied laboratory experiment whose results have no relevance. Worse, it is an environmentalist's nightmare, possibly fueling the cheap shots taken at the green movement in this country and around the world in recent years by critics who say environmentalists care more about nature than people.
Weisman dwells on what the world was like before humans arrived a few million years ago, "because to picture how the world was before us" is a "basis for understanding how the world may evolve after us." He travels from Africa to Arizona, focusing on such questions as why large animals have survived human contact in Africa yet not elsewhere in the world. But whether the past can illuminate the future in this way is unclear.
The rest of the book explores what the world would be like in the future without us. Weisman turns to places where people have not been for a while, such as a preserved forest on the border of Poland and Belarus, and the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. But his strongest work draws on fine reporting and research to theorize on the longevity of an array of human creations, from an ancient subterranean city in Turkey, to the sprawling oil refineries and pipelines in Houston, to the 441 nuclear power plants around the world, to the radio-wave signals of 1950s television shows such as "I Love Lucy," signals that will emanate eternally into space, weakening but never dying no matter how many millions of miles they travel.
However interesting this speculation may be, its purpose remains as mysterious as the disappearance of the mammoth several millennia ago. So is our response. Weisman could have explicitly asserted all along, for instance, that humanity is more harmful than we think, and we need to do something about that. Yet he does not. In a coda, he does briefly suggest that we act, with that action to "henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one." But this wispy afterthought is as implausible as it is gratuitous, failing to infuse this book with what it lacked from the start.
Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.