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  Business Times 5 Oct 07
Imagine the world without humans
By Matthew Phan

The World Without Us
By Alan Weisman
Published by Thomas Dunne Books $27.20
287 pages
Rating: A

ONE has to stop several times while reading this feat of investigative reporting to digest the chapters and pick up something lighter temporarily.

The World Without Us - a thought-experiment on the environmental legacy humans would leave behind if we all just disappeared tomorrow (which by the end of the chapter on plastics you won't feel is such a bad thing) - is not depressing in the way a sad novel is.

Rather, it's downright upsetting in describing, with relentless scientific precision, how much humanity has ravaged the planet.

For all that, the book is a marvellous adventure into the machinery of modern society, with author Alan Weisman - an award-winning journalist who also teaches at the University of Arizona - introducing the reader to a host of unimaginable people, places and facts.

An early chapter, for example, asks what would happen to the 'sheer titanic presence of a New York City', and brings us face to face with the hydraulic engineers for the city's subway system.

According to them, 13 million gallons of water threatens to flood the tunnels every day - so without humans to run the city's 753 uphill pumps, floods could overwhelm the system within 36 hours.

Weisman starts every chapter with a question of sorts: What would happen to the massive oil-refining infrastructure in Texas? What would happen to the populations of birds and beasts that our activities have decimated, or, conversely, to the farms and animals we keep for food? How is nuclear waste stored, and what would happen if no one was there to watch it?

Anyone who thinks environmental science is narrow subject should think again.

Weisman's response puts together the knowledge and opinions of a variety of specialists. Nuclear engineers, chemists, marine biologists, soil scientists, safari guides and artists speak in turn.

He even digs up Jon Lomberg, who designed what could be 'the last remaining fragments of human aesthetic expression' - the gold-and-aluminium discs carrying greetings in 54 human languages that were welded on to the Voyager spacecraft when they were launched in the 1970s.

But Weisman makes the strongest points with simple, scary facts. Did you know, for example, that there is six times more plastic, by weight, than plankton on the ocean's surface?

As the wind and waves erode the plastic, it is broken down into smaller and smaller particles that are ingested by smaller and smaller organisms. Birds have been found dead with plastic in their intestines proportionately equal to 2.26 kg if found in humans. Some 115 billion kilograms of plastic pellets are manufactured annually.

What Weisman doesn't discuss is how to solve all the issues his book touches upon. But he doesn't need to - if The World Without Us makes you recoil in horror, it will have done its job.

Related articles on Singapore: general environmental issues
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