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How permanent are we? This is a question that has intrigued some of the greatest creative minds of our civilization. In our modern lives, we are surrounded by the seemingly eternal (steel, concrete, plastics, a global human population of billions) to such a degree that it can be difficult to envisage a world in which Homo sapiens does not dominate. Difficult, but not impossible. In The World Without Us, author Alan Weisman approaches this subject to masterful effect – revealing the scope (and impact) of our dominion over nature – and the abrupt transmutations that would occur if humankind were to vanish. His premise is simple, what would happen to the world – so carefully manufactured by our hand – if we were no longer around the control it?

An Interview with Alan Weisman

Imagine your world today – the myriad of small, human efforts that add up to everything working as it does. Now, subtract that human equation. Within a week, infrastructure requiring intelligent command would begin fail. Without pumping, New York City’s subway tunnels would flood with water, which would then seep up, eroding the building foundations above. Power plants and dams would be unable to produce electricity, causing the cooling systems of nuclear power plants to fail. Seasonal temperature changes would cause pipes to burst, further weakening the structural integrity of abandoned buildings. In less than two years, vegetation would begin to reclaim the land, as tree roots and vines burst forth from cracks in the pavement. And animals populations, including some species currently facing near-extinction, would likely flourish. Unlike the desolate, post-apocalyptic visions of science-fiction writers, Weisman’s post-human world is teeming with life.

While on the surface the premise seems bleak, the intent on Weisman’s part was not to portray human existence as something akin to a flock of locusts, destroying everything in their path. Instead, it is a treatise on the primal, exuberant force of nature – that the earth’s ecosystem is remarkably resilient, and capable of healing from even the extensive marks left by our civilization. In removing the human element, Weisman is able to tell a story of survival. This non-fiction work is an environmental tome for the everyman, a decidedly atypical approach to the overworked arguments regarding climate change – and one that inspires optimism and adaptation, rather than fear.

Weisman’s arguments for optimism are bolstered by his inclusion of perspectives from leading experts in a variety of fields. From the scientific (zoologists, engineers, paleontologists, and marine biologists) to the more esoteric fields (religious leaders, art conservators), their positions add depth to his argument, offering an informed take on everything from the problem of plastics to the ecological changes witnessed by some of North America’s oldest inhabitants.

Surprisingly, the most persuasive argument for Weisman’s premise is observed in the remains of the New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Devastated by the massive flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the ward is largely uninhabited today. Instead,the native flora has overtaken the abandoned structures – clinging to walls, roofs and forgotten playgrounds. At the site of one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in recent memory, life has returned.