Books: goodbye to all this

What if mankind disappeared right now, forever? How fast would the earth recover from human activities? Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us puts Nicholas Lezard in a nihilistic mood.

The World Without Us
Alan Weisman
Virgin Books, 2008

What is it that is so seductive about the idea of complete human extermination? I wondered whether it was because of my own nihilistic mood — but it turns out that other reviewers have been haunted by the scenario proposed in this book. What Alan Weisman does, quite simply, is imagine what would happen to the world if we were all wiped out, or, indeed, summoned up to heaven in the Rapture (although I gather that you have to be good to be raptured, so I at least will be sticking around). The result, as one reviewer said, is like "a slow-motion disaster spectacular and feel-good movie rolled into one".

And it is quite understandable, as we learn during the course of this book, to feel good about the disappearance of humanity from the earth (with the snag, acknowledged by Weisman, that none of us would want our children to disappear).

This might sound like a message you’ve already heard — and, sympathetic though most readers of Guardian articles would be to the notion, you might feel you’ve heard and read enough on the subject. But there is something about a description of our own extinction that pulls at the heart, like gravity, and it’s not just like the thrill you might get at the thought of reading your own obituary. It makes you think there really is something to the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud‘s concept of the death wish.

The book is, moreover, designed to be readable. It really is quite hard to close it and get on with other things. This is partly down to Weisman’s little touches of description: we learn, for instance, that the director of the Harvard Forest laboratory, David Foster, looks 10 years younger than his 50 years, and is "fit and lean, the hair falling across his forehead still dark", which is not strictly speaking information that gets us any further in understanding our desecration of the planet, but does at least stop the book from being an unbroken stream of science.

That said, the science and factual stuff is, almost invariably, mind-boggling. I did not know, for instance, that ships the length of three football pitches entering the locks of the Panama Canal have only two feet [0.6096 metres] of clearance on each side; that there may well be at least one billion annual bird deaths from flying into glass in the United States alone; or that graphic designers have been called in to imagine what warnings against coming too close to nuclear-waste containers will be comprehensible 10,000 or more years from now. Whether these containers won’t have leaked their contents by then is another question altogether. Weisman is very good at describing the decay of man-made artefacts, from your own home to the underground system of New York.

Your best bet, with the notable exception of the carvings on Mount Rushmore, is to store everything underground. The Channel Tunnel (incidentally, this is a very un-parochial book — it ranges across the globe) will last for ages, although rising seawater will probably slosh in from the French side. And the underground network of cave homes in Cappadocia may last even longer. The gimcrack, slipshod, ecologically disastrous building developments in Northern Cyprus may last just 10 years, all things being well.

As for the plastic bags … this bit is awfully depressing. Not just because of their longevity (and "biodegradable" plastic bags are, sadly, not as biodegradable as we have been led to believe), but because, in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (also known as the horse latitudes or, more recently, as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), the amount of plastic circling around on top of and beneath the waves has already passed beyond computation.

Few books I have read have done as good a job, then, of putting humanity in its place. The remarkable thing is how strangely comforting it is to know this. "Microbes don’t really much care whether we — or anything else — are here or not,” says one scientist. “We’re just a semi-interesting niche for them." The scientist adds that microbes were all there was on Earth for billions of years and, eventually, when the sun expands, they’ll be all that’s left for further millions of years. It rather puts things in perspective.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008