Lately, me and my BFF the kindle have been spending a lot of quality time together. I've been re-reading a lot of Terry Pratchett just for kicks, and that is one guy who can write a story. But in between Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax, I also polished this one off.
The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman
The title kind of says it all, really. On the premise that human beings disappear tomorrow, Weisman discusses the full range of what will happen to all our miraculous, destructive devices and toys without humans there to constantly maintain the fragile, tentative balance we've created in order to sustain ourselves. What will happen to our houses, or cities, our bridges and tunnels? What about our oil refineries and our nuclear reactors? Which animals and plants will thrive in our wake, and which ones may have already passed to far to come back from the brink of extinction?
Weisman gives a strictly gloves-off account of the true mess we have made of this planet, and discusses which of our marks will vanish without a trace in mere years, and which -- things like plutonium, plastic, and CFCs -- will likely last for thousands or hundreds of thousands of years.
I certainly was never bored reading this book. I was, at times, alternatively made hopeful and horrified by the implications Weisman put forth. It was pretty heartening to read that cockroaches in temperate climates, without the benefit of hiding in human-heated structures, would all die off within a winters. Take that, horrid gross creatures! It was, however, decidedly NOT heartening to read about the truly indestructible nature of one of the worst by-products of our disposable culture, plastic. Of course I knew that plastic doesn't biodegrade. Everyone knows that. I did not know that ocean currents have created dead zones in the pacific, where huge islands of discarded plastic have grown larger than the state of Texas. And it never occurred to me that plastic could be deadly to the planet even after it is ground down to particles too small to see. Because then, they are the perfect size for little plankton to eat, who easily mistake the little bits for food. At which point, the indigestible plastic becomes lodged in their tiny intestines, and the plankton die. Plankton, as I hope everyone reading this knows, are responsible for most of Earth's oxygen production. And there is a LOT of plastic currently floating around in our oceans. A lot.
After reading this book, frankly I don't know how anyone can say, ever, that nuclear power is safe or should be used as an acceptable form of energy. It's not, and it shouldn't. Any power source that requires an entire mountain to be hollowed out so the waste can be disposed of without killing hundreds or thousands of people should put up a red flag that hey -- maybe we should stop making any more of this stuff! And much like plastic, plutonium and uranium will be around forever, for all practical intents and purposes. The US government hired an artist to come up with warning signs that could be universally understood, should an alien or future civilization come upon one of these mountains and wonder what might be buried under there. Scary stuff.
Fortunately, not all of mankind's creations are so deadly or long-lived. The NYC subway system would flood in only a couple of days with no humans to continually man the pumping systems. Even the most massive and impressive infrastructures would fall likely in the first 100 years or so. And even with plastic, radioactivity, and CFCs continuing to muck things up, Weisman continually stresses Earth's remarkable ability for self-healing and regeneration. Eventually, even the most harmful of human-made byproducts will be folded into Earth's mantle and the carbon will be filtered from the air. And personally, I find that all remarkably comforting. Humans may have created more problems than they will eventually be able to solve. But for me, I can take some cold comfort that the Earth, at least, will abide.