Wednesday, November 24, 2010

61. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

I am on such a tear of reading these days that I finally found the energy to actually read a non-fiction book. These things are often in hardback and wide and thus take up important inches on my on-deck shelf. If I can knock a few non-fiction books out before the end of the year, I can do some major clearing. I am extremely lazy-minded and have a hard time concentrating on reading when there is not an exciting storyline to keep me connected and wanting to know what happens next. However, I felt that with my current momentum, reading a non-fiction book was within my capabilities and possibly even enjoyable.

I got this book for xmas last year or even two years ago from my wife (I believe I requested it or at least was very interested in it) when there was a big wave of books and tv specials about what would happen if all the humans disappeared. It is a fascinating subject and a bit of a fantasy for people like me who lament humanity's impact on the planet. I'm also a big fan of the post-apocalyptic genre of which this book must be considered partially a member. Finally, I am going to be running a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game (Barbarians of the Aftermath is the actual game system I'll be using) starting next week with my gaming group and thought The World Without Us would provide lots of good imagination stimulation and concrete ideas.

It's a solid, interesting read, but it suffers a bit for me from two things: it's journalistic style and a greater proportion of information about the world today than the world without us. For reasons I won't get into here, I'm not a big fan of the fourth estate. I particularly dislike magazines. The articles so often follow the same structure and use the same techniques (clever hook, brief description of some dude who then gives some quotes, blah blah). The World Without Us evolved from a magazine and each chapter was basically structured in the same way. Not a deal breaker, but one of the reasons I have trouble concentrating on non-fiction. Nevertheless, it is thoroughly researched and mostly well-written (a teeny bit too florid for my tastes). I learned a lot in reading it about the state of the world today and long-term trends, both natural and man-made, that will affect what would happen to the planet were humans to disappear.

And there was a lot of that kind of information. I'd say more than two-thirds of the book was about current environmental situations on the planet. There was a ton of interesting (and depressing) stuff: agricultural research on elements in the soil going back centuries, shrinking pristine forests in Poland, the history of plastic and its proliferation (totally fucking scary) and so on. The problem for me is that I know a lot of this stuff already, especially the environmental issues and since that is a big part of my day job, indirectly (I'm the IT dude for an environmental NGO) and I find it hard to take as it is, I really don't want to be reading about how we are destroying the planet when I'm reading at home. My own personal difficulty with reading this stuff is not a criticism of the book and I would argue that if you are interested in the subject of a humanless planet but also want to get a good primer on a wide range of ecological impact going on, this is a great book for that. His information is built all around the science and conversations with scientists. It remains objective and never gets emotional. That being said, the parts where he does go into how things would degrade were much more enjoyable and interesting for me (he talks about New York City, works of art, farmlands, nuclear power plants, the Panama Canal) and I would have liked a greater proportion of that part than the current state of affairs. Though i do recognize you need some info on the current and past situation to explain what will happen when we leave (which I hope happens sometime soon).

So good stuff and I pat myself on the back for having read a non-fiction book this year. Hell, I kind of even enjoyed it and may do it again!

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