At first glance, Alan Weisman's central premise seems no more than a gimmick, perhaps suitable for a magazine article but altogether too cute to sustain an entire book.
Weisman, freelance writer and journalism professor at the University of Arizona, sets out to answer the question of what would happen if Homo sapiens were suddenly removed from the planet:
How soon would nature rebound, and in what ways? How long would human artifacts remain to bedevil other species, or, perhaps, bemuse future sentient creatures, should any evolve?
by Alan Weisman
Thomas Dunne Books ($24.95)
In a "prelude" Weisman coyly establishes his premise by means of, say, a hypothetical human-specific virus, or an "evil wizard" who kills off humans but not other primates, or even a "rapture," whether as found in conservative Christian teachings or by aliens from outer space, that removes us "either to our heavenly glory or to a zoo somewhere across the galaxy."
From that oozy, high-calorie beginning, however, Weisman plunges into the best kind of journalistic science writing. He engages the gears of reader interest with a brief visit to Bialowieza Puszcza, a half-million acres on the border between Poland and Belarus, which Weisman describes as the last remaining fragment of old-growth, lowland wilderness in Europe.
"It is startling to think that all Europe once looked like this Puszcza," Weisman writes. "To enter it is to realize that most of us were bred to a pale copy of what nature intended."
By touching on this remnant of a past world, he establishes a baseline image that informs the rest of his text, flowing naturally first to his discussion of what will happen to our homes, how quickly they will rot, rust, otherwise decay and fall without people to maintain them, to the larger issue of our cities.
From that point, Weisman ranges the globe. "The World Without Us" is no mere thought experiment, but an on-the-ground investigation of places and developments rarely reported.
He discusses, for example, new understanding of the Amazon rain forest, which, far from being primeval, was the site of an extensive pre-Columbian civilization, depopulated by disease brought from Europe and overgrown almost instantly.
In the end, Weisman's book transcends gimmickry to attain a kind of brilliance -- paradoxically by adhering rigorously to its establishing premise.
Returning again and again to what the world will be like without humans to maintain nuclear reactors, he shows, among other things, how enriched plutonium would certainly escape into the environment, endangering life for 250,000 years.
Sadly, our poisons -- heavy metals, plastics, PCBs -- will be among our most enduring legacies.
"The World Without Us" gradually reveals itself to be one of the most satisfying environmental books of recent memory, one devoid of self-righteousness, alarmism or tiresome doomsaying.