question: Will the final version of THE WORLD WITHOUT US be
published on acid-free paper? How long would such a book last?
After all, if author Alan Weisman's conjecture comes to pass, no
one will be around to read it.
I never really stopped to think about the scenario the promotional
material that accompanied the galleys posed. But now I have, and
it's more than a little depressing.
Weisman surmises what would happen to the earth after a few days, a
few years, a few centuries. His conclusion? Everything old is anew
again, as buildings crumble and all current life forms die off,
replaced by new ones.
Weisman's career as a writer suggests no special expertise in this
area, but through exhaustive research on myriad topics ---
including the passing of previous civilizations that expected to be
around forever --- he presents a picture that heretofore was only
conceivable through science fiction. In his "world to come," with
no one around to supervise, as it were, the world will literally
fall apart, according to his precise timeline.
Weisman's description of buildings crumbling slowly and the
subsequent incursion of vegetation are at once beautiful and
disturbing. It is reminiscent of the final scene in A.I.,
in which Haley Joel Osment, as the android child who has survived
long after mankind has vanished, is "rescued" by aliens who allow
him, through DNA machinations, to revive his ersatz mother for 24
So what would such future visitors to earth find (and they better
hurry, since the Earth only has another five billion years)?
According to Weisman, it's plastic (and perhaps aluminum
kitchenware), which will be blowing in the wind after other forms
of refuse --- including radioactive materials --- have long since
Underground cities could also serve as one of the few reminders
that civilization once existed on this planet, assuming that life
in other galactic areas actually exist. Of course, if it doesn't,
no one will ever know we existed at all. Cheery.
To paraphrase that great philosopher, Woody Allen: humankind may
not be afraid of death; they just don't want to be around when it
On the other hand, as disturbing as it might be to realize how it
was painted, the picture is one of potential peace and
There are several questions about Weisman's theories. For example,
what force could account for the destruction of humanoid life but
allow other mammals to survive? I'm not a scientist, but I find
that difficult to buy.
For all of Weisman's hard work, it sometimes seems that there is
too much detail, as if all the background, expert interviews and
lush descriptions of a terminal planet could soften the blow of our
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 24, 2011