I just finished reading a fascinating book: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman (St. Martin’s Press, 2007). Perhaps I should qualify by explaining I also find geology books fascinating, and books about how things work, and I loved that TV series Connections (hosted by James Burke). Weisman was handed the premise, “What would happen if humans disappeared everywhere?” It fascinated him, and he began a LOT of research in preparation for writing an answer: this book. He writes about a primeval forest in Poland called Bialowieza Puszcza, and about Kingman Reef (part of a tiny Pacific archipelago), and submits them as indicators of what the world might be without us. He describes how buildings, subways, bridges, roads, artwork, petroleum refineries — everything — will eventually decay, and what the consequences will be. He writes about how we have changed ecologies with the importation of plants and animals and microbes, and which natural species might survive and which might not. He suggests most pets will not survive (becoming food for the wild animals), but that cats will probably go feral and continue. (They are mostly feral already.) There are interesting bits about how Nature spreads and migrates, even with the world as it is now. Do you know coyotes and a wild turkey have made it into Central Park in New York? And that various wild animals have recolonized areas humans have destroyed, such as Rocky Flats (where they built detonators for atomic bombs), the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and Chernobyl? Or that there are underground cities in Cappadocia, Turkey, built thousands of years ago in lava tuft?
I think the chapter that has the most impact on me is “Polymers Are Forever,” about how plastics were created and how long they last. Forever. Even when we recycle, their manufacture creates waste that lasts forever. And a very small percentage of all that plastic actually gets recycled. Weisman wrote about gyres in the oceans (zones of no movement) where the water is covered with plastic that ends up in the ocean, often many feet thick. And tiny pieces of plastic that get eaten, killing creatures up and down the food chain (even krill). Believe me, after reading this chapter you will think twice about buying anything that is made of plastic, and Reduce/Reuse/Recycle will become your mantra.
For more information about The World Without Us I urge you to visit their website: www.worldwithouus.com . The book has an extensive bibliography and an index. 🙂 Unless you are an environmental scientist, it is highly likely you will learn things you didn’t know (and perhaps even if you are). This is a good book — one I occasionally had to put down (because it overwhelmed me), but I always picked it back up again.