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Imagining a World Without People

By Stephen Carter-Novotni · October 3rd, 2007 · The Road to Wellness
Some years ago I read, with macabre fascination, a book that described what happens to our bodies when we die. The chapter on embalming and the anaerobic decomposition process influenced my decision to be cremated, and the descriptions have stayed with me ever since.

The end might not be nigh, but it is real -- and Alan Weisman's new book, The World Without Us, is earth-shaking in its speculative tale of what the world will look like when humanity is history. Speculative, but not fiction.

The book's premise is the question, "What will the world look like when all the people are gone?" The conclusions are based in science and observation, blending what we know about the materials of the man-made world -- plastics, concrete and steel -- with what we've seen happen in areas of the world where people have been forced to move on.

Chernobyl, which has been free of people for two decades, has become a de facto refuge for Russian wolves. The radiation has shortened their life spans, Weisman explains, but the animals are reaching sexual maturity at an earlier age and having more children.

Nature finds ways to endure even if we don't.

Just days after the extinction of man, the New York City subways flood because the pumps that remove the water from beneath the city fail. The water weakens the concrete and rusts the steel supports beneath the roads and buildings. In two decades, the city surface, buildings included, begins to collapse.

Animals that depend on us are affected too. Rats have no food to eat, and cockroaches disappear from northern climates because they have no warm homes where they can weather the winter.

If you look no further than your front porch or sidewalk, you can see what happens to the concrete in just a few decades. Water invades and expands when it freezes, bursting it apart. Most homes would stand for less than 100 years. Elsewhere, nuclear reactors run out of fuel and melt down a couple of weeks after we're gone. The Panama Canal closes in 20 years.

Thousands of years later, it's the plastic and nuclear material that's still around. Earth's oldest structures -- those made of stones that fit tightly together like Machu Picchu -- might remain. Our radio and television signals endure indefinitely on their interstellar journey.

The Earth, says Weisman, will be better off without us, though it could be better off with us. Endangered species, the atmosphere and the environment will all recover when we're gone.

We're ephemeral, as are all the things and places we hold dear.

As engrossing as this simple idea is, the point of the book is that how long we last and what we do with the time we have is the single thing we can control. Our destiny as a species, however limited, is up to us.

CONTACT STEPHEN CARTER-NOVOTNI: snovotni(at)citybeat.com


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