St, Martin's Press
What would happen on the Earth if, one day, all the people suddenly disappeared? Alan Weisman suggests some kind of Universalist rapture or mass exodus with the help of space aliens as a vehicle for our departure so that he can continue with his thought experiment. How would nature deal with everything left behind by 21st century humanity?
Weisman looks at several places in the world,remaining vestiges of the of the pre-human world and case studies for his thought experiment. Bialowieza Puszcza is a vestigal old growth forest on the border between Poland and Belarus. It is not untouched by man, of course, but has been preserved since the middle ages as a royal hunting preserve and as a national park. The wisent, the European bison, is still in residence there along with deer, wild boars an other European large mammals. No aurochs, sadly. Weisman suggetsts that a forest like Bialowieza Puszcza could once again cover most of Europe.
The subways, tunnels and buried streams on Manhattan would suddenly fill with water. New York pumps thousands of gallons of water every day out of it's underworld. When the pumps stop all would go underwater. This water would rust out the steel structure holding New York up, cause the streets to become canals, the buried streams to re-emerge and the tall buildings to fall. Central Park would become the source of seed to reestablish a forest on the island, wildlife would cross the bridges, soon to collapse from rust and lack of maintenance, and repopulate the island. Rats and cockroaches would die off without the support of their human hosts to feed them and heat their homes. - That's a good thing, Martha.
Houston would become a huge oil and chemical spill which would pollute the ship canal and cause problems for life far out into the Gulf of Mexico. Over time, Weisman hopes, nature would heal the mess, as it is doing for Prince William Sound. It could take centuries.
Nuclear power plants need us to keep them from melting down. Nature would move right in to te contaminated areas, however, as it has done at Chyrnobl An article that he wrote about the aftermath of Chernobyl is, in fact, the inspiration for this book. Grasses, trees, animals and human squatters have occupied the contaminated zone around the ruined nuclear plant, and will pay the inevitable penalty in increased cancers and birth defects.
The worlds oceans would recover, over time, coral reefs would come back and, interestingly, Weisman predicts that the oceans would soon be filled with huge sharks and other large predators. Some studies have suggested that, in a healthy, balanced ocean, much of the biomass is stored in large carnivores, and not is the smaller herbivores and plants as on land. This is because to the rapid rate of reproduction of small fish and of plankton, corals and other marine life, which is quickly eaten. The large carnivores live longer and store that energy, to be recycled years later, when they die of natural causes.
There is no big message in The World Without Us, no doomsday prophecy. Weisman simply wanted to think about the effect humanity has had on the world and his method for doing so was to imagine our sudden withdrawal. He does suggest that the Earth might miss us if we went away. Humanity is a part of nature, too.