The World Without Us: 11 Fun Facts from a Book about Earth without Humans

Ever wonder what the world would look like without people? It turns out there’s a lot we can learn about the world and the way we live in it by considering this question.
By Aubrey Vaughn
May 21, 2009
Add to My MSN

All it takes is one 18-inch-by-18-inch hole in the roof of this barn to allow in the elements and bring the structure down in about a decade. Even without an opening in the roof, the barn would remain standing less than 100 years once abandoned.

Content Tools

In many ways, the work of environmentalists (or anyone concerned with a healthy, sustainable world, whatever label they’ve given themselves) is about replacing or minimizing our impact on the Earth. But what would happen if humans, the culprit of so many environmental problems, just vanished?

You might wonder, if we’re no longer around, why it would matter to us what would happen? But asking and answering these questions provides an interesting and sometimes surprising perspective of how the way we live affects and alters the rest of the planet, from other species to the physical landscape. The answers reveal that some of what we consider our sturdiest creations wouldn’t last much more than a decade without us, yet some less tangible, seemingly less stable contributions may last millennia. Some species will disappear not long after us, either as winter arrives when there’s no one to turn on the heat, or after the last growing season, with no one to cultivate the next year’s crop. The exercise puts into perspective the decisions we’re making right now, and provides, in planetary terms, a long-term view of the repercussions of these decisions and subsequent actions.

What would happen to the infrastructure, power plants – even art? Looking at the innovations we’ve produced – concrete, plastics, etc. – how long would they last once abandoned to the elements? How would they break down, if they would; and what happens as they deteriorate? Not to mention plants, animals and bacteria. Which animals would miss us, and which would thrive in our absence? In what ways have we forever (or pretty darn close) changed the state of things on Earth?

In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman dissects the present and past with archeologists, engineers, biologists and myriad other experts to answer these questions. The premise that all homo sapiens suddenly disappear while everything else remains intact may be unlikely, but once you’re in, the book is packed with intriguing ideas and information. So, if all humans vanish, how long does it take for things to change, and what exactly happens? Here’s a quick look — from the book and — at how some changes would unfold:

  1. After just two days, with no one around to monitor and man the pumps, the New York City subways would flood.
  2. At a week, the emergency fuel supply that fuels the generators that circulate cooling water to nuclear reactor cores would run out. The reactors would burn or melt within the first year, after which animals would begin returning to the reactor sites.
  3. Within 20 years, with no one around to continue the constant digging that keeps the Panama Canal open, it would naturally close, reuniting the Americas. Also in 20 years, the then water-logged steel columns that support New York’s East Side streets above the trains would corrode and buckle. Around the world, the common garden vegetables we’re used to eating would revert back to less-palatable wild varieties within this time frame.
  4. In 100 years, the 500,000 elephants of today would have reproduced 20-fold, following the demise of the ivory trade. At this time, populations of small predators such as raccoons and foxes would be kept in check by highly successful feral housecats competing for food.
  5. Within 300 years, New York’s bridges would fall, and dams around the world would have silted, overflowed and toppled.
  6. In 35,000 years, the soil would finally be cleansed of the lead deposited from decades of productive smokestacks.
  7. After 100,000 years, or perhaps longer, carbon dioxide would return to pre-human levels.
  8. After 7 million years, remnants of Mt. Rushmore would still be around, while some of our other creations – PCBs and dioxin – would likely remain intact.
  9. Bronze sculptures would still be recognizable after 10 million years.
  10. It’s estimated that in 5 billion years or more the Earth itself will burn when the sun dies.
  11. Beyond 5 billions years: While the radio waves from our radio and television broadcasts would be fragmented, they would continue to travel outward into space indefinitely.

This short list is interesting, but the book is fun (in a geeky, quirky kind of way) and full of great trivia (who knew about the underground city Derinkuyu beneath Cappadocia, Turkey?). In the grand scheme of things, it may not matter what happens if we all mysteriously, simultaneously vanish – to us, anyway. In any case, if we’re the only thing that goes, it’s almost guaranteed that eventually the Earth will wear away most traces that we were ever here – well, except those pesky radio waves, but they’ll be long gone into space. But in posing and attempting to answer the question, The World Without Us provides an intriguing and informative look at the way we impact the world around us, and the effects and life cycles of that which we create and leave behind.

You can find The World Without Us at your local library or bookstore, or online at

Have you read The World Without Us? Yes or no, what do you think would happen if we vanished? Share your thoughts by posting a comment below.

Previous | 1 | 2 | Next

Post a comment below.


5/27/2009 10:23:17 AM
What pre-human levels are we referring to 100,000 years after we disappear? Currently we are rougly at 0.0360% CO2 in the atmosphere. Past levels have been as high as .5 percent and life flourshied.

5/27/2009 10:22:23 AM
What pre-human levels are we referring to 100,000 years after we disappear? Currently we are rougly at 0.0360% CO2 in the atmosphere. Past levels have been as high as .5 percent and life flourshied.

5/26/2009 2:23:14 AM
"Nuclear reactors will burn or melt." Did someone say personal bias? There are a number of things in the nuclear reactors apart from emergency cooling water that keep things controlled. Much before the emergency generator fuel is exhausted, the control rods would have automatically plunged down and rendered the reactor dormant. Radioactive as all heck, but contained in the structures. Three-Mile-Island was an aberration, not the normality.

Royce Vines
5/26/2009 12:17:41 AM
G'day, Point 7: if the CO2 levels return to pre-human levels, that means up to 1500 ppm. Kind of shoots the anthropological influence theory down, doesn't it? Best Regards, Royce R. Vines Neither youth nor old aged should be seen as achievements. The twain has finally met! For seeing is believing.

5/25/2009 3:40:54 PM
I have never really thought of the concept of the complete extinction of the human race. Of course, for the evolutionary people, our cousins, the primates, will once again evolve and ta-da, here we are again. Or maybe some other species will take over, reptilian. There are so many ways to speculate and hypothesize about our extinction. I had never thought about the abandonment of all the animals that depend on us for their survival. I would like to think that many would find their way. Just from this article I think this book would be a brain tickler.

mij noslo
5/25/2009 12:44:16 PM
This is just horsefeather nuts. Let the author lead the way by dropping dead. What other stupid subject does Mother "earf" news want to waste ink on. keep sucking up to the socialist thinking and you will eventually abort/euthanize yourself to near extinction. Another liberal horror wish.

5/23/2009 6:29:33 PM
Some of the dams, like Boulder/ Hoover Dam, were built with concrete that will last thousands of years and are firmly attached to the rock around it. So, while it might silt full and over flow, I find the claim that all dams will collapse in 300 years highly suspect and possibly a product of personal bias.

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.

(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here