Alan Weisman: The World Without Us

(All images by Kenn Brown of Mondolithic Studios, featured on WorldWithoutUs.com)

Following his 2005 article titled Earth Without People, American journalist Alan Weisman published The World Without Us, a 2007 New York Times bestseller examining the environmental impacts of human disappearance.  Preceeding the History Channel’s post-apocalyptic documentary Life After People, Weisman’s study has been described as “one of the grandest thought experiments of our time”.  Several years on, as the environmental debate rages, this work is every bit as current.  This article offers a brief overview of Weisman’s vision, graphically illustrated by artist Kenn Brown of Mondolithic Studios.

The World Without Us considers how long man-made artifacts would survive and how remaining lifeforms would evolve.  Weisman concludes that neighbourhoods would become forests within 500 years and that radioactive waste, plastics, bronze statues and monuments like Mount Rushmore would be among the last surviving human relics.  Using New York City to illustrate the process, Weisman demonstrates how subway floods would start eroding the city’s foundations just days after human disappearance.

“I chose the most recognizable city on earth, New York”, Weisman told Powell’s Books.  “There used to be something like fourteen streams that ran between the hills on (Manhattan); we forced all that water underground, and now the subway engineers have to contend with it every day. They’re constantly pumping water away. If those engineers were gone… subways would flood.  Steel columns that hold up the street would corrode and buckle within a couple decades. Streets would cave in, and eventually the streets would turn into rivers.”

Looking at already-abandoned cities such as Pripyat, Ukraine (deserted after the Chernobyl disaster), and drawing on the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists and religious leaders, Weisman’s experiment reflects the fleeting nature of human life on Earth and how quickly nature takes hold once people are removed from the picture.

Kenn Brown’s dramatic images illustrate New York beginning to crumble 2 – 4 years after human desertion, as weeds infest the streets and trucks disappear into the collapsing roads.  Within five years the city is engulfed in flames as fire rips through the abandoned buildings.  Three hundred years sees the Brooklyn Bridge collapse into the East River and the concrete jungle gives way to a real one after half a millenia.

Fifteen thousand years later, the shattered remnants of New York stand at the foot of an ice cliff.  The process illustrates the Earth’s incredible capacity for self-healing, as chemically-treated farms return to the wild and billions of birds flourish unhindered.  Meanwhile, the everyday fruits of human labour are immortalised as fossils, and man’s earliest buildings become the last monuments to our shattered civilisation.

“You would think modern architecture should be the last to go, but in fact we build much more cheaply now than we used to”, said Weisman.  He cites buildings in Varosha, in the demilitarized zone of Cyprus, which were abandoned in the early 1970s.  Colonised by rats and pigeons with trees growing within and hotel lobbies filled with sand dunes, some buildings have already collapsed while others are literally crumbling to the ground.

Back in New York, meanwhile, a new ice age covers the rolling hills of Manhattan with a glacial ice sheet that has left almost nothing man-made visible.  Nothing, that is, except the iconic Statue of Liberty, whose icy form protrudes from the glacier above what used to be New York Harbor, a haunting relic of a lost civilisation.  But it’s not all doom and gloom.  Alan Weisman’s oddly hopeful book highlights one potential fate that we can seek to reverse.  If we don’t, however, perhaps nature will do so for us – beginning soon after we’re gone.

For more information, visit The World Without Us.  You can also purchase Alan Weisman’s book via Amazon and other online retailers. All images in this article are the property of (and created by) Kenn Brown of Mondolithic Studios.

Related Articles:
Guardians of Time: Mystic Sculpture by Manfred Kielnhofer
Poetic Yet Terrifying: Post Apocalyptic Art by Christophe Dessaigne

 

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