The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman

I started this book at some point in December and read it across more than a month, having looked forward to it ever since I read the short version, or whatever that was, way back when in The Economist before some plane ride. I can’t believe it could have been the plane ride to Michigan last fall–like in 2007–but I haven’t taken that many plane rides. Perhaps time has gotten away from me! Anyway, when I was on one of those whirlwind trips through the library chasing Fella or Filly and hoping to god we don’t get shushed by an old person or pull too many alphabetized books off of shelves, I saw this featured at the end of an aisle and just grabbed it. I’d been meaning to read it I guess for more than a year. I ripped through the first few chapters, and then got stalled on the story of a house. Boy did that house take a long time to disintegrate, in sentence after sentence with the exact same grammatical structure, arranged in what seemed like paragraphs of equal lengths. I put the book down and did what any self-respecting reader would do:

I went online.

First stop was to the Skeptics’ Guide discussion board. They have a thread about books you just can’t get through, and I put the call out for someone to convince me to keep going or else give me permission to stop. I was mildly convinced to keep going. So I did, but not before checking the Amazon reviews to make sure that I was thinking the right thing about it. I found people there who were unhappy with it, too, which made me feel validated and correct, and satisfied. The person at SGU telling me to keep at it had said that certain individual chapters were very interesting to read, and for the most part I found them so. But like I’ve already written elsewhere–perhaps in this blog–the book is much, much less than the sum of its parts.

In the first place, it’s not about “the world without us.” It’s about “stuff that is happening in the world because of us, and what might happen if we stop doing those things.” The tone wavers between punitive and alarmist, from, “Oh Noes! Planet iz being sick!” to “Ha! You reap what you sow! See ya, suckers!” You cannot figure out what his point is. You’ll read a beautifully written vignette about some such place, or time, or creature, and you will feel a gamut of emotions, from shame to pride to admiration. But the vignettes don’t add up. A couple of chapters feel like finished pieces, but most of them take a theme, riff on it for a while, and then end with some clearly tacked-on sentiment to tie it all into the chapter. I edit documents, and I edited a lot of books for a not-very-good publishing company that took what it could get, and I added lots and lots of paragraphs and sentences here and there to save us the trouble of trying to get an author probably not up to the task of rewriting the manuscript (Sheryl or David, if you are reading this, NOT YOU) to put a cohesive center/topic/marketable idea. You add a sentence here, muse on some concept there… subheadings, pictures, rhetorical questions–I am a cobbler of texts rather than a creator of one, but I can spot a patch job. Uh oh. Book’s veering off topic. Better add a meaningful coda to remind people what book they are reading!

I mean, come on. Weisman cheers on one page that if humans disappear, the something pheasant will have a chance to bounce back, but then on the next page laments that if humans disappear the bison will go with them (or vice versa or whatever). Are we supposed to be happy or sad? Is one animal better? In the chapter on Cyprus, he spends the entire first part describing how the landscape took back the city in four years or less, but then spends the end boo-hooing about what developers are doing to the landscape. Well, it’s a short term problem by his definition, right? Develop away! The earth recovers, right? He already talked about how quickly a house breaks down. In the chapter on geology, he applauds the Mayan regime for having a minimal impact on the environment, and then curses governments later for hurting environments. One hand strikes and the other hand gives a flower, over and over and over.

What else? I didn’t care for the fearmongering about evolution; the book went back to the library today (it was overdue) so I can’t look up page numbers, but there’s a paragraph where he becomes alarmist about how mutations are going to change evolution. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people state obvious facts–such as mutations drive evolution–and present them as charged, emotional items. I also didn’t care for the part where he’s interviewed a representative of an oil refinery… I mean, I was interested in the interview, and found it fascinating to read what the representative said and did not say… but he named the guy and gave his position and his company, which is good. People on the record in books ought to be on the record. What I didn’t care for was the next part in the chapter where a nameless accuser, identified only by initials, got to take the first guy down. First of all, it’s unfair to put one person on the record and not the other, but if the first didn’t care and the second made it a condition, whatever. Fine. It’s their business. But it was absolutely jarring to have no explanation of why suddenly there’s some person identified only by initials. I spent several minutes trying to figure out who it was. I checked the names of previous chapters, I looked for references that it was someone’s first name, nothing. I was forced to conclude that it was someone else. That is something authors and editors are supposed to take care of. Readers have their own work to do, and it shouldn’t be filling in holes left by the production staff. That’s just sloppy. And since I’m on the topic of sloppy, I saw “insure” for “ensure” twice.


I still don’t even know that the book needed an editor so much as a completely different format. It’s the kind of thing that has so many small topics to muse upon and learn about, that I think they would have made great installments in some serialized version called something else. Dickens used to publish by the chapter in magazines. There are serial columnists. These stories and warnings should have been tightly focused, short pieces in a collection. That would have solved the contradiction problems in a lot of places. Plus, without the need to justify the presence of every chapter beneath that title (which doesn’t describe the contents of the book in the first place), you wouldn’t have needed these smug, pop-psych, vague pronouncements at the end of every chapter trying to force a unified theme onto the book. I’m all for a good morality tale, but not when it is that artificial and explicit. Just stating the facts and making observations would have driven the point home.

These observations Weisman makes about the environment are fascinating, and the gyrating trash field in the Pacific Ocean a great ecological tragedy, and the workings of biology and nature amazing and cool, but the book is not a good venue for them. It was tedious and frustrating to read. Plus, since the author has informed us that it’s basically too late to do anything but get on with the leaving, I’m not sure what anyone expects a reader to do. Set up a booth at the next Earth Day Fair, I guess. But not distribute literature at it. Paper, you know. And all that foot traffic is bad for grass, but asphalted spaces hurt the ground, too. As for those Voluntary Human Extinction groups? I am officially creeped the fuck out.

All that said, World Without Us was much better than World Without End, even though there was no lesbian nun sex in Weisman’s book. Perhaps if there were more lesbian nun sex in general, the world would have fewer problems.

About the Author
Karen’s loins produced only 2.0 babies, which puts her family below the replacement fertility rate. Her cats stay indoors, and are far too lazy to kill even bugs, much less songbirds. She has an electric compost machine and saves gift bags. And she always, always cuts up the six-pack rings before putting them in the trash.

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  • Lauren C.  On January 28, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    “Oh Noes! Planet iz being sick!”

    Did the LolCats write this book?

  • Karen  On January 28, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    No. But they wrote the blog behind my back.

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