Friday, November 7, 2008

On "The World without Us" by Alan Weisman ****

The start of a great nonfiction book, it seems, is often simply a hook. It might not be all that original once you get into the book, or it might not present any new information, but as long it has the hook, there's a good chance people will pick it up to examine. Weisman's text has the hook. But it also has loads of information that I wasn't familiar with, even if much of the general thrust of the book is familiar (e.g., how our species has ruined the earth). What I like so much about this text is how Weisman shows both what won't last and what will. It's the latter that he starts off with, running down just how quickly a common house becomes dirt again or even the NYC subway, which sits underneath the city's sewers and is maintained by constant pumping; were we not there anymore, NYC's sewers would become tunnels of water within days. And then it's on to the story of degradation, all the things we'll leave behind that are not going to go away for thousands--even millions of years. It makes me feel guilty for using plastic, though its ubiquity makes me wonder how I could avoid it. Plastic, Weisman brings out, actually can biodegrade--into smaller pieces of plastic. In other words, it just sticks around to much things up, getting smaller and smaller until even little organisms can eat it and force it out as, well, plastic. Hope we aren't poisoning anything--but we probably are. The book ends on a familiar note, discussing the supposed problem with overpopulation. This last item seems a bit timeworn, given Ehrlich's The Population Bomb and many other books have have been through the same territory with fewer people. I don't think getting rid of people is the answer (nor would it mean a better world, as I think nations where population is shrinking would demonstrate). Learning to live within our means and in harmony with nature might help. But even here, I've often wondered if there is a way we wouldn't muck things up. We're like an invasive species--we kill off what's around us, affect whatever is there, and there's no getting around that. Hopefully, we can preserve enough of what's around that the kids will have something to grow up into.

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