What Happens After Us?

Alan Weisman kills us off before his book even starts. As a result of one almighty intentional oversight on the author’s behalf, the reader never knows what happened to the human race. Alan figures that descriptions of the apocalypse are not necessary. He’s more interested in what comes next.

Alan’s book, The World Without Us, brings together the expertise of scientists, engineers, religious leaders, oil refiners and others in exploring what the Earth would be like if we weren’t on it. Everything remains intact, except for us. Alan’s predictions, on one hand, sound macabre, and on the other, stand as witness to the endurance of the Earth to heal itself.

This is the chronology of the Earth’s recovery that Alan predicts after the extinction of Homo sapiens:

  • After a few days the New York City subway system will be flooded.
  • After one week, the pumps that keep the world’s online nuclear reactors cool will run out of fuel, leading to meltdown.
  • After one year animals will return to the sites of these reactors. By that time, around 1 billion birds, that are now being killed each year as a result of live power lines, will have survived.
  • After three years, with no central heat, domestic pipes in cold climates will have burst, and the joints between walls and roofs will separate as metal fixtures expand and contract.
  • After 20 years, the Panama Canal will dry up, joining North and South America once more. Garden vegetables will have reverted to wild strains.
  • After 100 years, without the ivory trade, the world’s population of elephants will increase to 10 million. The populations of raccoons and foxes will decline since domesticated cats have entered the food chain.
  • After 300 years, along with many other cities built on river deltas, Houston will have been mostly washed away.
  • After 500 years, suburbs will be completely reclaimed by forest. Only aluminum dishwasher parts, stainless steel cookware, bathroom tiles, and plastic handles will remain.
  • After 1,000s of years, New York City will be scraped away by glaciers.
  • After 35,000 years, the soil will be finally clear of human-generated lead pollution; cadmium will have another 35,000 years to go.
  • After 100,000 years, CO2 may have returned to pre-human levels.
  • After 1 million years, microbes capable of biodegrading plastics may have evolved.
  • After 4.5 billion years, the 500,000 tons of depleted Uranium-238 will have reached its half-life.
  • Somewhere after 5 billion years, the earth will be incinerated by the sun. Our radio and television broadcasts will still drift through space.
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea stands as evidence of what happens when we’re not here. For 50 years, since the end of the Korean War, a swath of land 2.5 miles wide has felt no human tread (it’s littered with land mines). Alan describes this patch of land – it is now home to endangered species that are too light to set off the mines. Species hang onto survival only because they can exist, unthreatened, in the reclaimed rice paddies. Environmentalists report that the 150-mile strip is alive with rare animals, testimony to the resilience of the world without us.


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  • Posted on Feb. 18, 2008.

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