Tuesday, January 29, 2008

[book] The World Without Us

Although I'm fascinated by the subject of the book -- how the world would fare if humans suddenly disappeared --I was too lazy at first to read the entire thing, since it had already been summarized (I thought) in an excellent Scientific American article last July. I find that many authors tend to make books that are unnecessarily repetitive so it's more time-efficient to simply read the summary. Happily that's not the case with this book, which I received as a present and now finally finished reading this week. I learned a lot, about everything from Bialowieza Puszcza, the old-growth forest on the border between Poland and Belarus, to Varosha Cyprus, a city in a warzone that was abandoned suddenly in the 1970s and hasn't been revisited since. Oh, and the Rothamsted research archive of the UK, keeping soil samples since the 1800s, plus the Panama canal, the "Petro Patch" near Houston where zillions of deadly chemicals are produced. All very interesting, though I kept thinking of other areas he didn't cover. For example, he doesn't mention how the lack of firefighters means that huge fires would almost certainly consume cities well before the other effects of decay set in. Also, what about the complete extinction of some interesting human-made species of plants, like yellow 2 maize, which can't reproduce on its own?

The biggest eye-opener for me was the ubiquity and resilience of plastics of all kinds, a substance never before seen on earth and which are essentially indestructible. Properly disposed of, plastic is a huge economic benefit over any alternative, but the disposal caveat is bigger than I thought. I wonder what would happen if we changed the price of plastic to include disposal costs -- would it still be such a net positive?

Anyway, I'm an optimist who believes that the world is getting much better, in spite of the human-caused environmental problems which I think are significant but solvable and temporary. Books like this (and I'll add Jared Diamond's Collapsewhich I also enjoyed and recommend) forget one critical detail when they discuss the environment: a world without humans is also a world without the most precious substance in the entire universe--the human brain. Properly configured, there are no limits to the ingenuity possible and fantastic things that can be done when you have cooperative, healthy, well-organized people around -- and the more the better, I say. Instead of fantasizing about a world that loses the most precious substance of all, we should be figuring out ways to make even more of us.

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