Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Review: The World Without Us

The World Without UsAnother great read called The World Without Us, this time on a best seller by Alan Weisman. This is a book that hypothesizes what would happen to Earth if mankind disappears overnight. It does not attempt to explain why and how humans can suddenly vanish.  Instead it tries to portray how cities and other man-made artifacts will collapse, in addition to how other lifeforms will adapt.  To illustrate its points, this piece utilizes vivid examples like the crumbling of New York City -- think Will Smith racing the red Camaro through a run-down and overgrown Times Square in I Am Legend.  This publication has also inspired various TV series like Life After People on the History Channel.  

Here are some interesting points:

1.  Our houses, built of the usual suspects (wood, clay, bricks), will fall easily to nature.  Their biggest enemy is water that seeps through the smallest cracks, thaws and freezes over time.  Although most roofs are waterproof, water can always find a way to rust and loosen the nails that hold the shingles together. Once inside our habitats, it will quickly wreak havoc by molding walls, wooden floors and other furniture. 

2.  New York City will rot from underneath.  It all starts with the extensive subway network which had effectively punched winding holes throughout the city foundation.  These lines will flood within days as water pumps malfunction, causing the sewers above them to also overflow. The flooding weakens the soil structures, causing roads to cave in and pavements to crack.  As water attacks from beneath, rain water will amplify the results from above.  More importantly, it has an accomplice in plants. Plant life will find a way into these cracks and their roots in turn will "break more ground." The combined effects of these forces will eventually tumble the skyscrapers in Manhattan, one at a time. 

3.  While modern man-made structures quickly falter without human maintenance, the structures that will last the longest are surprisingly, the ones that have stood for thousands of years.  These include the pyramids of Egypt and the Stonehenge of England.  Other man-made evidence that will survive the test of time include radioactive materials, bronze statues, plastics, and Mount Rushmore. 

4.  Wildlife will also find a way back into cities and towns as domesticated pets fall prey to the lack of human care. They are the first to go as their food supplies dwindle. Wild animals from nearby countryside will take over and flourish. So does infestation of wild plant species as they outgrow the locals. Over time, cities will be concealed by massive vegetation growth.  A study of the Mayan civilization is provides a clear illustration.  Before their discovery, various Mayan towns including their massive pyramids were well concealed by heavy vegetation in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The point being nature will flourish where there is no human presence. The case study used in the book was the Korean DMZ. 

5.  The author also hypothesized that mega faunas will one day return because evolutionary pressures to outrun human hunters no longer exist. As the theory goes: mega faunas like the woolly mammoths were easy targets for early hunters. By bringing down these big animals, our ancestors guaranteed themselves ample food supplies, clothing and weaponry resources.  With such advantages, the sure-fire extinction of mega faunas was inevitable. Without humans however, wild animals can afford to evolve into giants again!

Overall, this book is an entertaining read.  The thought experiments were very visual and easy to extrapolate.  I would recommend this non-fiction for some good bedtime reading.


-PTS

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