The World Without Us


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This powerpoint is based on key chapters in Weisman's The World Without Us. I teach the book as a supplementary text to Jane Jacobs, The Life and Death of American Cities.

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The World Without Us

  1. 1. The World Without Us I had a dream, which was not all a dream… From “Darkness” by Lord Byron1 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  2. 2. Some Comments on the book This is one of the grandest thought experiments of our time, a tremendous feat of imaginative reporting!"--Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and The Durable Future  “The imaginative power of The World Without Us is compulsive and nearly hypnotic--make sure you have time to be kidnapped into Alan Weismans alternative world before you sit down with the book, because you wont soon return. This is a text that has a chance to change people, and so make a real difference for the planet.”--Charles Wohlforth, author of L.A. Times Book Prize-winning The Whale and the Supercomputer  “Alan Weisman offers us a sketch of where we stand as a species that is both illuminating and terrifying. His tone is conversational and his affection for both Earth and humanity transparent.”--Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams “An exacting account of the processes by which things fall apart. The scope is breathtaking...the clarity and lyricism of the writing itself left me with repeated gasps of recognition about the human condition. I believe it will be a classic.”--Dennis Covington, author of National Book Award finalist Salvation on Sand Mountain  “Fascinating, mordant, deeply intelligent, and beautifully written, The World Without Us depicts the spectacle of humanitys impact on the planet Earth in tragically poignant terms that go far beyond the dry dictates of science. This is a very important book for a species playing games with its own destiny.”--James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency2 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  3. 3. Some Readers Say…. 1. This is a charming book on a macabre subject: if every person on earth died tomorrow what would happen to the works of man? Using New York as an example the author details the slow, inevitable destruction of the subways, bridges, buildings, the return of the forests and the animals, and the disposition of those things that never seem to go away: poisonous heavy metals, plastic, and radioactive waste. 2. Its a fascinating read of well-reasoned speculation. 3. This is an oddly hopeful book. Hopeful because it offers compelling evidence that life on earth will outlive human tampering with the ecosystem, yet odd because it also demonstrates that the world wont miss us much. In fact, its pretty clear that, on balance, the world would be better off without us. 4. This should be required reading for every graduating high school and/or college student. The real world theyre inheriting! 5. Anyone believing that the rats and cockroaches would be locked in a struggle for dominance of the Earth will find themselves reconsidering, for instance, since these species success in much of the world stems from their association with humanity. 6. The appalling insight is that most of the legacy that we will leave once our cities have crumbled will be filth and pollution3 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  4. 4. Other readers say…  7. The basic premise of this book is a hypothetical examination of what would happen to the earth if human beings were to suddenly vanish. (If only.) Some chapters are better than others, but overall, this is a really interesting read. Some parts are uplifting, like the brief time it would take Manhattan to return to wilderness. The authors descriptions are quite beautiful and riveting. Then other chapters make me want to put a gun in my mouth, like the one on all those abandoned nuclear power plants, and the giant plastic gyres in the ocean. 8. There is no single unifying narrative in this book, it is rather a series of essays of some imaginative science writing. Weisman takes us to Bialowieza Puszcza, a protected land on the border of Poland and Belarus. This is Europes last primeval or old growth forest - the stuff of fairy tales - with trees 150 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, covered with scary looking moss. Before there were humans, all of Europe was covered with this kind of forest, and, presumably, would be again if humans vanished.  9. Lifes ability to survive in these circumstances is the upside of Weismans story. On the downside, however, he makes some ominous predictions. For example, since the end of World War II humans have been producing tons of plastic material. Plastics are not biodegradable unless they are incinerated. Weisman claims that much of this plastic material ultimately finds its way into the oceans and ends up killing fish and other sea creatures at an alarming rate. He predicts that these creatures are doomed whether humans disappear or not - more likely if they dont disappear.4 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  5. 5. Speculative Non-Fiction  Weisman offers an unlikely premise: humans will suddenly disappear. He chooses not to explore the veracity of such a claim. It is hypothetical.  Weisman looks at various aspects of our world to see how they have fared before us and with us.  Weisman is particularly critical of human behavior over the past 200 years, when industry begins to develop.  Weisman draws unpleasant conclusions over the role of nuclear power plants, radiation and plastics.  Weisman also notes the earth’s bludgeoning population growth, but offers a solution that few find practical. (See pgs. 271-272)5 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  6. 6. Prelude and Chapter 1  The prelude deals with the effects of an endangered human culture in South America. Conservation efforts keep the people alive, but they essentially lose their ability to live according to their own traditions. Why is this significant for the book?  Chapter 1 calls itself “A Lingering Scent of Eden”. We saw another scientist, Dawkins, use a similar metaphor. Weisman is discussing a forest (Bialowieza Puszcza—the word means “primeval forest) at the borders of Poland and Belarus that faces extinction. What endangers the forest? Are there many forests left in Europe? Would a world without humans save this forest?6 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  7. 7. The Forest7 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  8. 8. Our Homes and Our Cities  Chapter 3 uses Manhattan  Chapter 2 shows how our as a city under siege after homes will eventually humans disappear. succumb to ruin.  Water will be one of the  Weisman explains the effect most destructive forces. of climate on all types of housing materials:  Bridges will decay and fall. teak, cement, drywall, wood-  All major highways will framed homes (typical in crumble. many suburbs)tile and  Look at the subway! stainless steel.  He opines that nature through beast and weather will reduce our homes to rubble within 100 years. Only tile and stainless steel will survive.8 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
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  10. 10. Chapter 4: The World Just Before Us An “ice age” is a time of extensive glacial activity that covers a relatively large area with ice. During the Ice Age, which ended a few thousand years ago, 30% of the land surface of the earth was covered by ice . In North America an ice sheet covered almost all of Canada and the northern United States.  We know the extent of the Ice Age because the glaciers left features on the landscape similar to features we observe around glaciers today in Greenland and Antarctica. Most likely, Earth has endured a series of ice ages over millions, possibly billions of years.  Animal bones are part of the geological record—the earliest fossils are found in parts of Africa. Later we emerge as a dominant species.  Weisman believes a great dry spell occurred about 7 million years ago in Africa. Much of the world’s moisture was buried in the glaciers that covered Europe and North America. This changed the course of evolution, as certain species became extinct and others survived. (47)  Scientist Kate Dewiler believes there were 2 dominant species that later on became a hybrid—us. She opines that this hybridization is an evolutionary force, similar to natural selection. (46)Post ice age created conditions for man to evolve, possibly from apes, who could function on two legs, but also used all 4.  As chimpanzees have no real predators or each other, they are equipped with a gene of adaptability; they are able to live off all kinds of foods.(51)  If man were to disappear, the chimpanzee would flourish, and other game, such as lions and elephants would augment.The r possible destruction could only happen if there were another ice age. Then the cycle would begin again.10 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852 
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  12. 12. Chapter 7: What Falls Apart Chapter 8: What Lasts Weisman uses the island of Cypress as the Weisman uses Istanbul, of Turkey as a setting for his theories. setting for his theories. The decay of resorts off the shore seem to Istanbul was once Constantinople, the predict what would happen to buildings if capital city of the Eastern Roman humans disappeared. empire. The search for natural resources: Cypress It still has many sturdy buildings from the gets much of their water from Turkey. past—the Hagia Sophia, once an One portion of Cypress is Greek; the other Orthodox church. is Turkish. There are also a series of underground Cypress deliberately allows cheap caves that seem to be a city in itelf. manufacturering of resorts for British The caves are man-made—their structure retirees. Those buildings are bound to suggests that they served as fall apart. defense, storage and shelters. Cypress construction shows us that many As Turkey has suffered great economic modern resorts are made with the depression, their buildings are poorly cheapest material. It cannot withstand made—they actually sway on a windy the test of time. day. Metin Munir, a journalist, says: “You An earthquake would destroy the many understand just what the Taoists mean cities in Turkey, where the majority of when they say that soft is stronger than the population live. But the hard.” (96) He is addressing the underground caverns would be largely gradualism of decay in Varosha, the unaffected. former resort of the Greek Cypriots, which now belongs to the Turkish Cypriots.12 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  13. 13. Varosha, Cyprus Caves of Turkey13 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  14. 14. Cyprus and North Cyprus (Turkish Occupied Zone. Constantinople, around the fall of the Western Roman Empire.14 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  15. 15. This is a hotel with rooms in the actual caves! Pictures taken from the Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  16. 16. Chapter 9: Polymers are Forever  This chapter is one of the most important in the book. It shows the gradual damage of plastic in the environment.  It begins with a study of materials found in the sands at Plymouth Harbor in England.  Plastic is everywhere; it even can be found in the depths of the ocean, consumed by the sea creatures lowest on the food chain—krill and plankton.  Plastic is in cosmetics: many exfoliants found in bath and face scrubs are made of plastic, not organic material.  Most plastics end up in ocean-fills, not land-fills. Plastic material litters the beaches which then goes out to the sea.  Plastics do not biodegrade easily. See page126. Part of what is broken down becomes a lethal chemical.  All plastic is a polymer, defined as “simple mechanical configurations of carbon and hydrogen atoms that link together to form chains.”(118) Cotton and rubber are polymers.  Landfills contain “constructive debris and paper products. Newspapers don’t biodegrade when buried away from land and water.”(119) A year old newspaper can still be read.  We are a “throwaway” society. The plastics we toss may be changed through geological perseverance that takes thousands of years. Geologic time is what changes landmasses, shifts plates in the ocean, alters the face of the world forever. Plastic can be recycled, but it cannot decay as organic matter.16 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
  17. 17. Polymer liquid crystals (PLCs) are a class of materials that combine the properties of polymers with those of liquid crystals. A liquid crystal polymer can be seen as a network of conventional LC molecules that are linked together by polymerization.17 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852
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  19. 19. Chapter 10 The Petro Patch• Our relationship to petroleum—very complex. It begins with rubber. • Texas Petrochemical: pipelines begin in Pasadena, a Houston suburb; they extend• Goodyear tires use a synthetic rubber. See to Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi to the page 130. Weisman: “A tire can’t be melted Northeast. They pipe refined gasoline, down and turned into something else.” home-heating oil, diesel and jet fuel. (131) It cannot be recycled. • Oil was discovered in Texas after the Gulf• Weisman: “In the United States, an average hurricane in Galveston that killed 8000 of one tire per citizen is discarded…that’s a people. third of a billion, just in one year. Then there’s the rest of the world.” (131) • This is where oil refineries, chemical plants, synthetic rubber and plastics• Tires contain carbon black filler—it gives began production. Texas oil has been in strength and color. decline since the seventies.• Burning tires release energy along with • All oil refineries have a lot of complex “surprising amounts of oily soot that equipment. Malfunctions cause contains some noxious components.” 131) unfortunate results from hydrochloric acid• The largest plant that produces synthetic leaks (Sterling Chemical) to liquid rubber is in Texas, owned by hydrocarbons geysers (BP—not the recent Goodyear.(Note—this is not the polymer oil spill) to explosions of plastics (again— called elastomer that is found in the BP) to hydrogen sulfide leaks (guess Amazonian Para tree, a natural who—BP). substance.) • Much is run by computers, but it is man• Processing oil into gas and diesel is in high that puts out the fires caused by these demand, but the problems go beyond explosions. See paragraph at the bottom supply. Susan Bertolino Mosaicpg. 137-138.) of 852 19
  20. 20. According to British Petroleum, in 2009the United States had an oil refinerycapacity of 17,688,000 barrels per day,or 19.5% of the world’s total oil refinerycapacity.
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  22. 22. Chapter 12: The Fate ofthe Ancient and Modern • What is the difference betweenWonders of the World an ancient and a modern1. The English Channel Tunnel—it is a train that moves from Folkstone wonder of the world—besides England to Coquelles, France. It cost over 21 billion dollars to time? Use this criteria to make. answer:2,. The Panama Canal----the land was once part of Colombia until • 1. Construction Panama had independence. President Roosevelt was • 2. Durability instrumental in carving out this canal so that ships wouldn’t have to travel around the entire South • 3. Beauty American continent—it connected the Pacific Ocean to • 4. Function the Atlantic.3. Mount Rushmore: an attempt to • 5. Material “immortalize the greatest American presidents in portraits every bit as imposing as that long • Weisman focuses on 3 marvels vanished wonder, the Colossus of Rhodes. of modern technology: Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852 22
  23. 23. English Channel Tunnel
  24. 24. Panama Canal
  25. 25. • Possibly one of the mostChapter 13: The World fascinating chapters in the book.Without War • Weisman shows that war canThe DMZ is 151 miles long and 2.5 mileswide.Red-crowned cranes, white-naped crane actually help the environment inand whooping cranes (endangeredspecies) live in a portion that was once one example. • As long as Korea remainsfor rice paddies—now wetlands. Theycome here to winter.Saber-tooth tigers are rumored to beliving in the DMZ.Since no humans live there, it is safe for divided, the Demilitarized Zonemost wildlife that might havedisappeared: “Asiatic black bears, (DMZ) will be a habitat toEurasian lynx, musk deer, Chinese waterdeer, an endangered mountain goat wildlife and plants that haven’tknown as the gotal and the nearlyvanished Amur leopard cling to what mayonly be temporary life support.” (185) been seen in ages.“If there were no agriculture trying tofeed 20 million humans in Seoul…pumps • Few humans ever appear in thisthat defy the very seasons would bestilled. Wildlife would return and waterwith it.”(189) area, so the area is a reminder ofThis is a commentary on our foodindustry—as billions of people demand what the wilderness might havefood, all living creatures and the land areheld in the balance. been. (190)
  26. 26. • Perhaps the most important story is that of Chernobyl in Russia. It had aChapter 15: Hot Legacy nuclear leak, but the then SovietThe birth of nuclear energy—uranium inevery nuclear creation is highly unstable. press clamped down and gave the impression that it was a minorUltraviolet rays created the ozone level;they became the shield against too much problem. It wasn’t. The radiationexposure to them. It’s a bit like gettingpneumonia: your lungs fill up with mucus from Chernobyl has broughtbecause white blood cells are fighting theinfection. But those same cells are radiation sickness, cancer and allmaking you sick by creating mucus as a sorts of problems to all livingway to bring down inflammation. creatures. Chernobyl shows us aOne form of radiation is ultraviolet rays,let loose by nuclear fission in the testing worst-case scenario.of nuclear weapons along with theconstruction of nuclear reactors. • See pages 214 to 218.The invention of freon, also known aschlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) became anozone destroyer.Hydrochloroflourocarbons also hurt theozone layer (HCFC)—these polymers areused today.
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  29. 29. Chernobyl Accident  On 26 April 1986, the most serious accident in the history of the nuclear industry occurred at Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Ukrainian Republic of the Soviet Union. The explosions that ruptured the Chernobyl reactor vessel and the consequent fire that continued for 10 days or so resulted in large amounts of radioactive materials being released into the environment.  The cloud from the burning reactor spread numerous types of radioactive materials, especially iodine and caesium radionuclides, over much of Europe. Radioactive iodine, most significant in contributing to thyroid doses, has a short half- life (8 days) and largely disintegrated within the first few weeks of the accident. Radioactive caesium-, which contributes to both external and internal doses, has a much longer half-life (30 years) and is still measurable in soils and some foods in many parts of Europe. The greatest deposits of radionuclides occurred over large areas of the Soviet Union surrounding the reactor in what are now the countries of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.  Unfortunately, reliable information about the accident and the resulting dispersion of radioactive material was initially unavailable to the affected people in what was then the Soviet Union and remained inadequate for years following the accident. This failure and delay led to widespread distrust of official information and the mistaken attribution of many ill31 Susan Bertolino Mosaic 852 health conditions to radiation exposure.
  30. 30. Pictures of Chernobyl after the meltdown