Alan Weisman Speaks at Stegner Center

Oct 05, 2008 | Stegner Center

“Alan Weisman has produced, if not a bible, at least a Book of Revelation.” 

On Tuesday, September 30, Alan Weisman, New York Times bestselling author of The World Without Us, joined the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law for a public lecture and book signing. Weisman’s critically acclaimed The World Without Us asks the provocative question: what if the human race simply ceased to exist? “How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap on it?” Weisman asks. “How soon would, or could, the climate return to where it was before we fired up all our engines? Could nature ever obliterate all our traces?”

Although speculations about the end of the world are typically the domain of science fiction or fantasy, Weisman’s book is a scientific exploration of a world without humans which shows us humanity’s true impact on the environment in a wholly original way. “For a long time I’ve sought some fresh, non-threatening approach to disarm readers’ apprehensions about environmental destruction long enough that they might consider the impacts of unbridled human activity on the rest of nature – and on our own fate,” Weisman explains. “I’ve found that theoretically wiping humans off the face of the earth intrigues rather than frightens people.”

Weisman consulted with experts in a wide variety of disciplines to learn how the earth would respond to humankind’s extinction. His field research took him around the globe, including the Korean Demilitarized Zone; the last remnant of primeval European forest on the Polish-Belarusian border; national wildlife refuges in Colorado that were formerly nuclear and chemical weapons arsenals; ancient and modern ruins in Turkey and Northern Cyprus; Chernobyl; coral reefs in Micronesia’s Line Islands; as well as Africa, the Amazon, the Arctic, and Mayan Guatemala. “To understand how a world without people might be requires learning what the world was like before people existed – which turns out to be different on every continent and island,” Weisman says. “And then, of course, there is the fact that two-thirds of the world is covered with water. What would the seas be like without us? To get everything I needed, I have been privileged to speak to paleontologists, structural engineers, biologists, art conservators, diamond miners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, and even Buddhist monks, to name just a few.”

Since its publication in 2007, The World Without Us has been an international phenomenon which has been translated into 30 languages to great critical acclaim. Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben described the book as “one of the grandest thought experiments of our time, a tremendous feat of imaginative reporting.” Weisman’s book was named #1 Nonfiction Book of 2007 by both Entertainment Weekly and Time magazine. It spent 16 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller’s list and was the most popular nonfiction audio book on iTunes last year. Weisman has appeared on television discussing his new book on both The Today Show and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

In considering a world without humans, Weisman not only explores the recovery of wild lands, he also meticulously details the collapse of the manmade world. One of his early chapters chronicles a deteriorating New York City. “Within two days, without pumping, New York’s subway would impassably flood,” Weisman says. “Within twenty years, water-soaked steel columns that support the street above the East Side’s 4-5-6 trains would corrode and buckle. As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river. In the first few years with no heat, pipes burst all over town, the freeze-thaw cycle moves indoors, and things start to seriously deteriorate. Plugged sewers, deluged tunnels and streets reverting to rivers will conspire to waterlog foundations and destabilize their huge loads, toppling structures. Gradually the asphalt jungle will give way to a real one.”

Although many of the locales explored by Weisman are far flung and exotic, his book clearly resonated with Utahns interested in how the human race has impacted our environment. The Wallace Stegner Center sponsored the reading as part of its ongoing commitment to the multidisciplinary study of natural resources and environmental law and policy.