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The World Without Us

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, October 4, 2007

The World Without Us

One of the most intriguing books of the year is Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us.  In what the New York Times called a “morbidly fascinating non-fiction eco-thriller,” Weisman explores humanity’s impact on the planet by asking us to envision our earth without us.  As the flyleaf to the book details, “Weisman explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence…how, just days after humans disappear, floods in New York’s subways would start eroding the city’s foundations, and how, as the world’s cities crumble, asphalt jungles would give way to real ones.  It describes the distinct ways that organic and chemically treated farms would revert to wild, how billions more birds would flourish, and how cockroaches in unheated cities would perish without us.”

 No time for the book?

 Just watch the media.  In under ten minutes, you can watch all three, and gain the heart of the book’s contention.

 The animated “Earth without Humans” from the Scientific American:

 Animation of a 500-year tour of your house:

 A 15,000 year tour of Manhattan:

 The book, and the subsequent conversation that has ensued, prompts a powerful and provocative question for those of us who follow Christ:  If all Christian influence were withdrawn from the world tomorrow, how long would it be before the world knew it?  What would the results of that withdraw be?

 It should be dramatic.  Indeed, the spiritual impact of the removal of Christians should be far more telling than the ecological impact of the entire human race from the face of the planet.  At least, if we are to take the metaphor Jesus Himself suggests in the Sermon on the Mount: 

 “You are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13a, NIV).

 In Jesus' day, salt was one of the most useful and important elements you could possess, but not for adding flavor to food.  The main use of salt was as a preservative to keep food from spoiling.  Without refrigerators or freezers, canned goods or packaging, salt was used to keep food from spoiling.  So if you had a piece of meat that you couldn’t eat right away, you would take some salt and rub it into the meat, which would prevent the meat from going bad.

 As John Stott writes, 

The notion is not that the world is tasteless and that Christians can make it less insipid…but that it is putrefying.  It cannot stop itself from going bad.  Only salt introduced from outside can do this.  The church…is set in the world…as salt to arrest – or at least to hinder – the process of social decay…God intends the most powerful of all restraints within sinful society to be his own redeemed, regenerate and righteous people.

 Stott, however, continues by noting the obvious – namely, that this is conditional.  Meaning that for salt to be effective, it must retain its ‘saltness.’  As Stott writes, “For effectiveness the Christian must retain his Christlikeness, as salt must retain its saltness…The influence of Christians in and on society depends on their being distinct, not identical.”  Even further, this difference must be applied to what is, in fact, decaying.  Unless the salt penetrates the culture, the decay can not be arrested.

 Which raises another, perhaps even more penetrating, question which I once recall reading, but cannot recall the source:  “If the Holy Spirit were to withdraw Himself from your life tomorrow, how long would it be before you recognized it?”  So thanks to Weisman for asking what would happen to the world without us.   It serves to challenge those of us who follow Christ in ways Weisman never intended.

 James Emery White


 Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

 “Starting Over: What would happen if earth’s most invasive species – humans – were wiped out?”, Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, September 2, 2007, p. 12.

 For media and animated videos, see, and from the Scientific American, see

 John R.W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), pp. 57-60.

The World Without Us