The Resilient Story of Life -- After We're Gone

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"Imagine there's no countries," John Lennon dared us in a 1971 song. "It isn't hard to do."

Now, in 2007, author Alan Weisman ups the ante quite a bit in his audacious new work, The World Without Us (St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne), an August Book Sense Pick, by asking readers to "picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished." With "human extinction ... a fait accompli," wondered Weisman, "how would the rest of nature respond?"

Getting a comprehensive answer to that question necessitated four years of research, taking veteran journalist and author Weisman to nearly every continent for interviews with hundreds of scientists, writers, engineers, and others -- all in an attempt to frame the direst of human dilemmas in a manner that would engage and even inspire readers.

Alan Weisman

"I've been fighting for years with writing about the environment," Weisman (now 60) said by telephone recently from Massachusetts. "As my writing has, I hope, improved with age ... the harder it seems to be to get the ideas across; because this stuff is sobering, terrifying, depressing.... And I'd been just racking my brains for a way to get people to read it that would be so intriguing ... that they would get it -- and yet also not want to open a vein by the time it was all over."

The result is a work of speculative nonfiction that begins with the notion that mankind's worst-case extinction-scenario has already occurred: Now what?

Weisman's book unfolds its story of a people-less planet in compelling prose dense with detail and full of surprises. The World Without Us often induces the effect of a fast-forward film in time-lapse photography, as unmaintained structures crumble, other species (the cockroach, the rat) are frozen or starved out of existence, and scarce creatures and vegetations return and flourish.

"It just seems to disarm people's fears," Weisman said of his book. "They are so intrigued by the idea that, 'All right, let's stop worrying about if we're all going to die; let's just assume ... we are gone -- but yet we get to watch what happens next.' And it kind of disarmed me ... I was really surprised by a lot of what my research showed me."

One of the happy surprises Weisman said he received was in learning "how remarkably resilient life is ...

"When we stand back and look at the history of the globe, and the stuff that has gone on here for the last five billion years, nearly -- the world has gone through much worse stuff than what we're doing to it.... Compared to an asteroid impact, or the kind of volcanic eruption that was at least partly responsible for the Permian extinction, which killed off 90 percent of life on earth, we're barely swatting the surface, here."

Even at the nuclear-disaster site of Chernobyl -- "one of the worst things that people have ever done" ecologically, and one of the many places Weisman visited for his book -- "you see, first of all, the plant-life come back. And some of it looks really crazy ... these pine needles, they're different lengths; and the runs of them are different lengths; they're screwy. But nature's just working to adapt to a new condition out there.... We all did that, when the ozone layer formed, and the amount of radiation that was striking the earth -- ultraviolet-radiation -- lowered. That allowed us to evolve. So -- you know, it becomes really hopeful?"

Weisman's personal evolution into the author of a legitimately buzz-worthy book rich in science but often reading like a gripping novel ("the greatest thought experiment of our time," judged Bill McKibbon [The End of Nature], "a tremendous feat of imaginative reporting") began in a Minneapolis-area childhood stimulated by the study of nature and the reading of many books.

"I lived on what today is elegantly referred to as a 'wetland,'" Weisman said, "but back then we called it 'the swamp' -- and I was in it all the time ... looking at birds, and getting a sense of what it was all about."

As a youngster, he consumed all sorts of writing: "I read fiction -- tons. And I read science: I was reading about atomic energy and astronomy; I was devouring Roy Chapman Andrews' paleontology books. I graduated at a pretty young age to adult fiction, because I loved it so much. Growing up in Minnesota, you could read some of the most magnificent prose ever written in the English language, set right in the area, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A lot of those books I could probably quote to you by memory; it was very thrilling."

Science fiction was another genre Alan Weisman, boy and man, read for pleasure and instruction. Earth Abides, a 1949 novel of global-catastrophe by George R. Stewart, is a book Weisman was reminded of in the course of his recent research. Among more contemporary science fiction with resonance for The World Without Us was the speculative fiction of Gregory Benford, a noted UC Irvine physicist who was one of the many people Weisman consulted, not only to learn from but sometimes to use as cameo-characters throughout his narrative.

"The only way that you really, I think, absorb people [in a book] is through storytelling," he said. "You posit some good characters, and you get the readers to follow along to see what's going to happen to them. Now, a book about a world without people obviously posed a pretty interesting challenge! You can't have characters if there are no people. So I peopled this thing with the experts or the locals or the scientists ... there've been enough people in it that the reader can always ... latch on to [someone]."

The author himself had to latch on to a great deal more, in the protracted course of his mammoth and literally globe-spanning labors.

"This book was so hard to write," Weisman admitted, "it was so much research.... It involved not just a huge span of territory -- I mean, I was on the road constantly -- but five billion years in the past, and five billion years in the future. There were so many learning-curves I had to crawl up; and I had to learn to speak the [technical] language of so many people -- I was pretty convinced during the whole thing that I was never going to be able to write this book. It was only until about the last month that I saw it actually come together."

The immensity of his task, and its eventual achievement, had the unexpected consequence of encouraging Weisman in the belief that even the human catastrophe imagined at the start of his magnum-opus might yet be avoided.

"'Hell,'" he said it occurred to him, "'if I can write this book -- we can find a way to survive on the planet without bringing it all down on top of us.'" -- Tom Nolan