Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Alan Weisman:
The World Without Us [2007]

      This is a book about the very sick and further imperiled environment. But Alan Weisman has an interesting hook to get the reader to think about such a thing: Suppose, he says, that all of humanity were to suddenly disappear! Would the world recover from the mess we’ve made of it? And how long would it take? It’s an interesting thought experiment, as the book’s cover comments, and our group gave the book generally positive ratings. Several of us rated the book either 8 or 9 (on a scale of 0 to 10), and our group average was a respectable 6.9.

      Kirby remarked that this “hook” of imagining that humanity suddenly vanishes makes this “a brilliant stealth book”, and has even managed to get it onto the New York Times best-seller list. Thinking about the serious environmental problems of both today and tomorrow can certainly be depressing, and that is one important factor that keeps many people from investigating the issue very thoroughly. Many of us said that this book too was really depressing about the state of the environment. And yet, most of the same people who said they were depressed by the book also said that they liked it or even enjoyed reading it! I guess this really does show that if you have a very unpalatable message, it is useful to have a good hook or gimmick to help get people to think about it.

      Ron said he appreciated that the book covered so many areas. Kirby thought it was a very good book, despite being very depressing. John went even further, and felt that what was probably meant as a gimmick, the extinction of humanity, starts to sound rather plausible when you look at how serious the environmental situation is. He said he found the technical points quite interesting, but kept thinking “My God, this is really bad!” He then summed it up: “I liked the book but it really depressed me.”

      Kevin also liked the book quite a lot, and appreciated the discussions of how the New England forests have recovered, the problem of plastics that seem to never degrade, and so forth. He thought Weisman did a very good job in his description of Chernobyl and its continuing horrendous radioactivity, and at the same time the recovery of wild animals in the zone around it where humans can no longer live. Kevin summed up that a major lesson from the book is the real fragility of our technology and the way we live today.

      Barbara thought it was a great book, and that the author is very imaginative. She found the decay of the abandoned resort area on northern Cyprus to be one of the depressing parts of it. Thomas too said that he both liked the book but found it depressing. He said the description of the oil and petrochemical maze around Houston especially hit home for him, since he was living in that area until recently. While Rosie thought the book was preaching to the choir, Thomas said he disagreed with that, and believes it will reach many people who haven’t paid much attention to environmental problems so far.

      A few of us had more mixed feelings about the book or, in Rosie’s case, didn’t think too much of it at all. She felt the book got bogged down in factoids and was way too dense. She said it was drudgery to read the book because of all the statistics. Basically it is a worthless book, she thinks.

      Rich had more mixed feelings. He felt a lot of it is speculative and fairly weak scientifically. He also felt the book vacillated back and forth about whether or not the earth will ever heal itself (and how long that might take) if humans depart.

      Scott felt, in contrast to Rosie, that the book was breezy and easy to read. He thought that overall it is quite a positive book, because it skillfully brings home to people many of the truly serious environmental problems that are generally continuing to get much worse in this society. The book doesn’t mention them all, however, and has little to say about global warming for example. Scott was pleased to see Weisman’s acceptance of Paul Martin’s rather well-established theory that paleo-Indians wiped out much of the megafauna of the Americas. Scott has long agreed with that, but many people—especially those who romanticize Native American culture—have a hard time accepting this theory. Scott also felt that the author’s reminder of the truly awful environmental problems associated with nuclear power is very timely given that even some of those concerned about global warming are now looking toward more nuclear power plants as a “solution” to that problem.

      Scott did criticize a couple fairly important sub-threads in the book, however: 1) The author’s sociobiological bias, and 2) His Malthusian perspective. The sociobiology nonsense comes out in several places, one being Weisman’s standard view that chimpanzee behavior explains a lot about human behavior. The funny thing though is that Weisman admits that bonobos—which are equally closely related to us as chimpanzees—have a very different and quite peaceful behavior and existence. It thus seems to be obviously begging the nature/nurture issue to simply assume we are violent and warlike because we are so closely related to violent chimpanzees!

      The author’s Malthusianism comes out in his unjustified acceptance of the inflated guesses by UN demographers of how large the world’s population is going to get. Actually, the fertility rate has already fallen very low in many counties and is continuing to fall virtually everywhere in the world. While it may well be true that it would be better if the world’s human population were much smaller, existing trends will start to make that happen in just a few decades at most. The only “solution” to all this environmental destruction that Weisman himself puts forward is also Malthusian: That women should have only one child. This proposed solution is also worthless in that he proposes no method to implement it. To Scott this sounds like just another example of “liberal utopianism”. It is notible that Weisman, in common with most prominent environmentalists today, does not grasp that much of the problem here is systemic; i.e., it arises from the current socioeconomic form of society—i.e., capitalism.

      Finally, Scott thinks that Weisman really went off the rails in his short last chapter. What exactly was he smoking when he wrote that?! Among the crazy stuff briefly and apparently sympathetically discussed there are vitalism (p. 274), Kurzweil’s software people, the Gaia silliness, and the notion that people might be beamed to other planets in the form of electromagnetic waves! But despite such a goofy coda, Scott still thinks the book overall will probably have a useful effect. It provides no solutions, but it does help raise the mass consciousness of the seriousness of the many environmental problems.

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