Imagining the world's fate after humans have left

Environmental speculation makes for a surprise bestseller

October 21, 2007

In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman asks a deceptively simple question: What would the Earth be like if we humans suddenly vanished from its face? Gathering information from scientists, naturalists, engineers and maintenance workers, he leaves neither mammoth nor microbe unconsidered in his search for the answers. There may be no humans left in his book, but there are plenty reading it. The World has been on best-seller lists for weeks and has ranked as high as No. 6 on Amazon. Why has it struck such a chord?

In these excerpts from a recent telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times from his home in Massachusetts, Weisman pondered the wide response to his inconvenient truths.

There are an awful lot of people who are writing today about the environmental crises individually or the environmental crisis globally, and my urge to tell that story was my concern that some of the best writing out there isn't being read by enough of the people who really are part of the problem. ...

What I wanted to do was write something for the people - even including environmentally aware people - who are not going to pick up another book about the environment. They're going to feel overwhelmed, guilty, daunted, depressed, or just downright scared. Those are legitimate feelings; it gets so sometimes I can't pick up some of the stuff, so I've been looking for a long time to find a way that would make it a very satisfying and seductive read. How do you bring people to this? ...

You don't have to worry about whether we're going to die because we get killed off right away in this book. But through the magic of literature, we get to stick around and see what happens next. It's established very clearly from the beginning that it's not just some fiction writer speculating. I am a science writer and I'm going around to all these people who really know stuff and I'm getting them to speculate on what it's going to be like. And that's a very irresistible package for people. It disarms the fear factor; they can relax and be sort of bemused by the whole thing. The worst happens and you still get to hang around and see what happens next. ...

Every author wants lots of sales, and that's terrific, but the thing that's really gratifying is that I wrote this book because I think it matters. We are in an increasingly urgent situation and it's urgent to establish a groundswell of understanding and support for the environmental challenges that we face. These numbers indicate to me that these are not just environmentally conscious people who are buying the book. They're not the usual suspects or the choir or whatever metaphor you want.

The publicists who have been scheduling media for me have been getting lots of requests from radio stations that I would never have thought would have been interested. And they range from a right-wing talk radio show to the Archdiocese of New York Catholic radio. These have actually been sympathetic interviews.

The plastics chapter really hit people between the eyes. A lot of women have told me that they are utterly appalled to learn that they have been flushing plastic down the drain that has gone out to sea [from exfoliants that contain polyethylene]. Actually eliminating plastic would be very easy; all we have to do is go back to what we did before World War II. ...

I have been asked if I'm a people hater: "Do you think that the world would be better off without us?" If I thought that, I would be drunk all the time. There's a lot that humans do that appalls me, that I'm concerned about, but I think any species given the power would probably abuse it. We didn't know what we were doing; these were unintended consequences that we only understand in retrospect.

Humans are funny, humans are lovely and humans also get themselves into trouble if they underestimate the consequences of their actions. But they can learn from their mistakes.

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