Book Review: The World Without Us

One of the pleasures of holiday breaks is the opportunity to read an entire book in a short period of time. Many books I have read were consumed in fits and starts, at night or on the subway. Over the winter 2008-09 break I had the pleasure to read The World Without Us, which came recommended by my friend Yetsuh. I recall when it came out that it would fit neatly into the kind of pop-science writing I enjoy, but for some reason never picked up a copy until I was shopping for presents in the local book store (one for me, one for them). To start, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is well-written and well-researched, but I most enjoyed the central device of the book, which is an Earth where humans have instantly and completely disappeared. The author Alan Weisman uses this to deliver a not-altogether uplifting picture of the destructive impact we have on our planet. He moves from the obvious constructed world to the less noticed, but perhaps more consequential, environments of the undersea and forests, then ancient civilzations (for the latter, Jared Diamond goes into equally sobering depth).

The author's technique of zooming into and out of a problem to gain perspective reminded me of methods I use to do the same in approaching design problems. He does this literally by discussing microbes around us to space vehicles we've sent out, as well as moving rapidly through time to cover the impact of mankind in prehistory. The section on plastics and their utter foreign-ness to our planet was deeply disturbing.

Over time I've read most of what's in this book, I've never seen it all put together in a way that reveals so many connections. For example, I've heard theories about why megafuana in North America disappeared abruptly about 13,000 years ago. Speculation is that humans migrating from Asia easily slaughtered giant sloths, mammoths and camels that weren't used to them. Weisman goes further and suggests that African megafuana still exist because they evolved with humans over millenia, and this might be their only hope for survival. Weisman traces the diaspora of humans to the point of their tragic re-introduction to their ancestors in Africa in one particularly moving passage.

At the end few remedies are offered outside of the premise of the book, but this is powerful enough to make one realize the scope of work that must be done to salvage what's left. It's clear that life will continue on without humans, and will in many ways be better off without us. As a designer, I have some choices in the life cycle of products, but it is as a consumer and citizen that I can have the biggest impact.