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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. HarperCollins, 2008.

Weisman asks “What would happen to the world if all humans suddenly disappeared?” as a platform from which to examine the state of the planet. His novel approach makes for a fascinating and frightening book. Weisman begins with a house to study the unmaking of the world. The day after humans disappear, he writes, nature would begin to clean house – or houses. Nature would clean them all right off the face of the Earth. It might begin with the roof, as the first leaks occur around the chimney flashing. Soon nails are rusting, their grip loosens, trusses pull free, mold develops, squirrels and raccoons move in. As walls deteriorate, the basement fills with soil and plants. In five hundred years, a forest will stand where a suburb once was.

I hadn’t thought about how susceptible cities are. Weisman looks at New York to envision the devastation wrought by water in subway tunnels should the 750 and more pumps currently used fail. In Van Siclen Avenue station in Brooklyn alone, 650 gallons of natural groundwater are removed every minute by four pumps that rely on electricity.

Two sections I found particularly alarming deal with plastics and the nuclear industry. I’ve heard of beaches strewn with plastic bags and bottles, but the extent to which the oceans have already been inundated with plastic garbage is jaw-dropping. You can find nurdles, little plastic cylinders about two millimeters high, on beaches just about everywhere. They are the raw materials of plastic production that are melted down to make all manner of plastic items. Plastics in water don’t disappear. They just disintegrate into smaller and smaller bits until they become part of the food chain and block the intestines of the creatures that ingest them. And what of nuclear reactors? There are currently some 440 reactors around the world that would all melt down into mega-Chernobyls without human attendants. Even if that never happens, every year we accumulate tons more nuclear waste that we have no safe disposal system for.

It’s interesting, thought-provoking reading, and Weisman tells his thoroughly-researched tale in a calm, clear-eyed manner. Ultimately, there is just one cause for pretty much all the woes of the natural world, and just one solution. There are too many people. We need to stop overpopulation. The one-child policy of China needs to apply everywhere. As Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is us. (Pogo cartoon from Wikipedia)

180px-pogo_-_earth_day_1971_poster

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