::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Book Review: It's the End of the World As We Know It

Alan Weisman's "The World Without Us" Paints a Frightening Picture of the Earth's Condition

Here’s the bad news:

The world has probably already ended, but we’re just not perceptive enough to realize it.

Here’s the good news:

You can read all about it in Alan Weisman’s fascinating book “The World Without Us” (2007).

Be prepared, however. “The World Without Us” is a powerful blow to the kidneys that has the amazing ability to make a reader want to curl into a ball, suck his thumb, and wait for someone – anyone – to swoop in and rescue us.

The premise for Weisman’s book is a simple one: What would happen to the earth if humanity suddenly vanished? But in getting to the answer, Weisman has to explore the current condition of the planet.

And it ain’t pretty.

This explanation from the book on what may have happened to the vanquished Mayan civilization speaks volumes about our modern conundrum:

“Society had evolved too many elites, all demanding exotic baubles… a culture wobbling under the weight of an excess of nobles, all needing quetzal feathers, jade, obsidian, fine chert, custom polychrome, fancy corbelled roofs, and animal furs. Nobility is expensive, nonproductive, and parasitic, siphoning away too much of society’s energy to satisfy its frivolous cravings.”

Hello, kettle!

The book, while sloppily organized, stays pinned to your eyeballs. What horrible thing will I discover next? “The World Without Us” reads like a suspense novel – only its all true. I stopped reading several times in fits of bleary-eyed despair.

One of the most shocking revelations was the existence of a massive floating plastic trash dump in the Pacific Ocean about the size of Texas. Here we have hundreds of miles of ocean thick with bottle caps, plastic bags, six-pack rings, balloons, and sandwich bags. Oceanographers called it the “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – the place where all plastic garbage is churned and burped up by the Pacific.

After reading about this I was seized by a desire to purge my house of every plastic item. I wanted to strip naked and live in harmony with nature (eating bark and grass). Sounds crazy, I know, but here are just a few of mind-boggling things you’ll discover reading “The World Without Us.”

  • If humans disappeared, the average house would last about 100 years before toppling over due to decay. But if you cut a one-foot diameter hole in the roof, the same house would crumble in about 10 years. This is the power of nature once it gets inside and gets to work.
  • Here’s a quote that should make you pause: “Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated… every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last 50 years or so still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.” How much is that? One billion tons.
  • If people vanished, the 441 nuclear power plants currently in operation would run on autopilot for several months and then begin to overheat. The resulting deadly radioactive damage to the environment would poison the areas around the plants for a very, very long time – we’re talking geological time of hundreds of thousands of years.
  • Mount Rushmore would probably last about 7.2 million years.
  • There are about 20 billion birds in North America alone – yet the population is plunging. Two of the strangest mass killers of birds are windows and cats. Birds can’t see windows and they fly into them and snap their own necks at alarming rates. About one billion a year die this way. Domesticated cats – even when well fed – hunt and kill about 28 birds each every year. There are between 30-60 million cats in North America. Do the math.
It’s this kind of painstaking research and details that makes “The World Without Us” an astonishing, jaw-dropping read. If you can stomach the enormity of the damage humans have wrought and ignore the book’s scattered organization and tendency to jump from topic to topic at random, then you’re in for experiencing one of the best and most powerful non-fiction books written in the last several years.

Read it and then do something – anything – to help save us from, well, ourselves.

The Threat of Bottled Water

Reaching the Point of No Return on the Environment

Book Review: "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

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