Book Review: The World Without Us

I read a fair bit of non-fiction and often find that these books can be just as strange as their creative counterparts. The World Without Us (Alan Weisman, 2008) is one such stranger-than-fiction book.

What would happen if all humans suddenly vanished? How long before wildlife reclaimed cities? How long would our buildings last? How long before all traces of us are gone? In short, what would the world without us look like? It’s a fascinating hypothetical and sounds like it should be more than a bit disconcerting, but the book itself is quite positive in its description of our impermanence.

There are examples of places on earth where sudden human abandonment has already happened, including the Korean demilitarized zone and Chernobyl.

Chernobyl and Pripyat (4853730269).jpg
Pripyat, Ukraine, abandoned April 27, 1986, the day after Chernobyl.

“In Pripyat, an unlovely cluster of concrete 1970s high-rises, returning poplars, purple asters and lilacs have split the pavement and invaded buildings. Unused asphalt streets sport a coat of moss.”

In the wake of human disappearance, nuclear plants would eventually overheat, and the world might see Chernobyl after Chernobyl. It might also see the triumphant return of many endangered species. In Korea, the 4 km wide demilitarized zone is one of few remaining refuges for the Asiatic black bear with its white chest patch, the tusked Chinese water deer, and the exceedingly rare Amur leopard.

What about cities? The book uses New York City as an example. This is, as most other cities, a ‘tamed’ landscape. The land upon which NYC was built was once packed with streams, now replaced by the storm sewer systems and kept in check by more than 700 pumps. If humans disappeared, the pumps would stop, the streams flood the tunnels and streets, eventually carving out rivers as streets collapse. Flooding of the subway would take no more than two days, and the cave-in of streets only a few years. Post-apocalyptic fiction describing long-abandoned concrete cities still structurally intact might just be a bit generous, if truth be told.

“As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river. Well before then, however, pavement all over town would have already been in trouble.”

Wildlife already exists in our presence and would flourish in our absence. This new New York would see foxes and coyotes, deer and bears, maybe the odd domestic cat gone feral, yet cockroaches would die without heated buildings at these latitudes and rats might also not do well without our garbage to live upon.

The abandoned High Line, New York City.

This is post-apocalyptic non-fiction at its finest. Old stone buildings linger, modern buildings not so much. Water seeps into cracks, freezes in winter and tears concrete and asphalt apart. Plastic and bronze, however, are the stuff of forever. Millions of years from now, bronze sculptures in our image could be staring blindly at the hypothetical visitor to our planet.

The World Without Us is nicely written, engaging and compelling. The first third of the book in particular is highly recommended. It does veer off a bit mid-way through the book, but despite these asides, it remains worth the time. An excellent book for any writer of post-apocalyptic fiction as well as science enthusiasts. This is a ‘what if’ that stays with you.

(free chapter here:


2 thoughts on “Book Review: The World Without Us

  1. That sounds fabulous.

    Near where I live in Northumberland, there are the remains of at least three periods of lost civilization now reclaimed by Nature: the hut circles of Neolithic settlements; the sunken ruins of the walls, fortresses and villas of the Roman Occupation; and abandoned mines and colliery machinery from the 19th and 20th centuries. Opencast pits are now lakes and refuges for water birds.

    One of the greatest delights of a walk through the woods is stumbling upon the ruins of a house with ivy slowly tearing the stones apart and rooks nesting in the fallen chimney.

    1. Thanks for commenting, and the book is indeed utterly fascinating! If you haven’t read it already, I suspect you’d enjoy it – in particular the sections on wildlife.

      It must be quite something to observe the slow erosion of three eras in one place. I think I’ll have to put Northumberland on my (long) list of places to visit. One lost civilization is poignant enough on its own, never mind three. It’s almost impossible to simply walk past such pockets of time and not be aware of their significance, particularly if they are being reclaimed by nature, as you say.

      The thing that surprised me the most about the book, though, was the speed at which nature moves in after humans leave. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, given how much we are investing in ‘taming’ our surroundings, but I think it is hard to appreciate the continued effort that goes into keeping nature at bay (so to speak) for those of us with desk jobs.

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