Thursday, July 03, 2008

Alan Weisman - The World Without Us

One of my favourite science fiction novels, is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. His book imagines the way the world develops as the an unknown disease decimates the population of the planet, leaving a few survivors. In imaginative chapters he describes how cities fall apart, car tyres rot, cattle in fields die off, unable to survive without their farmers and roads are torn apart by weeds.

Alan Weisman's book is a non-fictional version of this "Deep Green" fantasy. Anyone who has ever watched how mould can break through the smoothest of bathroom tiles, or watch weeds spring up through the smallest of cracks in concrete, has a glimpse of just how frail out technological civilisation is. The opening chapters imagine how quickly our cities would vanish. Weisman visits parts of the world where humans have disappeared - the contested zones between North and South Korea, or the abandoned cities in the divided Cyprus He illustrates how quickly nature returns, and breaks down seemingly eternal buildings.

Occasionaly giving you the impression that he is somewhat excited by the prospect of the extinction of the human race, we learn much about our societies relationship with the planet. Because, while our cities will crumble, and in a few hundreds of thousands of years only trained alien archaeologists might find anything of us, we will leave a lasting legacy. The radioactive waste lying about our planet - the depleted uranium debris that litters Iraq (and will remain posionous long after the expanding sun has boiled our planet away). The millions of tonnes of plastic in the oceans that won't decompose. The giant rifts in the planets crust where we've mined the minerals underground.

Interestingly though, some of the largest changes we have made will vanish the quickest. The Panama Canal would rapidly be overcome by flooding and landslides as the pumps and channels that keep it open, block and overfill for instance.

Weisman also clears up one of those silly arguments that the pro-nuclear lobby throw at envrionmentalists occasionally too. The abandoned areas of Chernobyl may have recovered a rich and varied collection of flora and fauna, but the radiation continues to produce mutations and genetic changes that often make those animals and plants unviable. An interesting discussion about the consequences for the planet if we vanished and couldn't shut down our nuclear power plants follows these observations.

While the book has much of interest, it suffers a little from trying to be too readable. We don't need to know the hair length, body shape, posture or mannerisms of every scientist the author interviews. Nevertheless, it's a readable, and humourous (if terrifying) introduction to some of the big questions facing humanity.

Unfortunately I thought the assertion that our brain emanations, "like radio waves" might well travel through space and curve back on the planet, and at some distant time, ("long after we're gone"), "our memories might surf home abroad a cosmic electromagnetic wave to haunt our beloved Earth" was a load of mystical, unscientific nonsense. A horrible way to finish the last chapter that jarred with the clearly explained scientific notions elsewhere in the book.

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