Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that if 99.99 percent of the world's 6.5 billion people died, 65,000 people would remain. The correct number is 650,000.

Depopulation Boom

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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 8, 2008

It turns out that the world will be such a swell place without any humans around -- better sunsets, cleaner water, less traffic -- that we can't wait to see it. Even if, you know, we're all dead.

Since last summer, when Alan Weisman's "The World Without Us" became a surprise bestseller by imagining what would happen to the planet if all 6.5 billion humans instantly disappeared, the idea has taken hold in the popular imagination. Weisman says his book is being translated into 30 different languages, and the film rights have been sold. The History Channel's riff on the same idea, "Life After People," became the most watched show in that channel's history in January, pulling in 5.4 million viewers, and is being released on DVD on March 18. Tomorrow at 8 p.m., the National Geographic Channel airs its version of Earth without humanoids, "Aftermath: Population Zero."

None of these have any eschatological theories of how we all go poof -- a virus that kills 99.99 percent of the population would still leave 65,000 partygoers -- but why bother with details?

"Aftermath" has this great moment at the start, when the narrator says, over scenes of cities bustling, people talking, kids laughing: "One minute from now every single person on Earth will disappear."

Holy cow!

Guys driving cars, ping! They're gone! Kids playing in the yard dematerialize, leaving toys on the grass! A phone dangles on its cord, emitting a dial tone!

In "Life After People," the end of all of us was pretty much the same.

The family dog comes pad-pad-padding into the bedroom when the alarm clock goes off one morning, but -- bark! -- the bed is empty! The coffeepot is perking, but mom's not there to pick it up! It's the Earth as a planetary Mary Celeste: The ship is sailing, but the crew is gone and nobody knows where it went. (Least of all the dog, which is not in for a very good time once the lions in the zoo get loose.)

The idea of these shows is not the post-apocalyptic, last few people on Earth. Instead they focus on what would happen to all we have wrought -- our houses, our monuments, our carbon dioxide emissions -- if we were no longer here to keep them going. What would happen if human beings, around for about 200,000 years in our current form, were simply beamed up into space or died off in an afternoon? How long would the planet bear our love marks, our scars, our scratches, as Faulkner put it, on the blank face of oblivion?

An environmental engine stokes these imaginings. The writers and producers derive narrative from the forces of entropy and decay upon our physical handiwork: the Empire State Building as an arrowhead, left behind by primitive toolmakers.

"I didn't write the book because I wanted the human race to disappear," Weisman says. "I wrote the book because I wanted humans to look around and think about what we're doing. . . .It's a way of looking at the environment by theoretically removing us, and seeing what stuff we'd leave behind. It's looking at our impact by extraction."

The other shows work on a similar premise -- "We wanted to hold up a mirror and say, 'Here's our actions, and here's how they impacted the planet,' " says Howard Swartz, executive producer of the National Geographic show.


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