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."
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.
But then there's the unstated human ego at work here, navel-gazing and overstating our importance.
One wonders if dolphins -- one of the few animals that can recognize their reflection in the mirror, and are thus capable of narcissism -- daydream about an end to their species: "So, like, this gi normous tuna boat comes through with this huge net . . ." and then wonder what would happen to the ocean without them.
Without us, it'll certainly be quieter. No lawn mowers, no jet skis. Because, at the moment, there are no other animals capable of producing fire, the night will revert to what it was thousands and then millions and tens of millions and then hundreds of millions and then billions of years ago -- primordial ink.
There will be a lovely view of the stars.
Of course, none of this is exactly plausible, at least as shown here.
Rick Potts, director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, points out that no global species of animal dies out in a flash. True, scientists believe that there was some sort of "DNA crash" in our species about 50,000 to 80,000 years ago, with the number of breeding-age humans thought to have dwindled to about 10,000 people, almost all of them in Africa.
But that "crash" occurred over thousands of years, and we seemed to have bounced back. A dramatic event -- say, a meteor strike capable of killing off the world's most adaptable animal -- would also have a disastrous effect on the rest of life on Earth, and would kill off far more species than just us.
That said, these daydreams are terrific at showing exactly how and why our creations would collapse without our constant tending.
Lights would start going off within hours (power plants run out of fuel), most subway systems would fill with water within days (the New York City system pumps out 13 million gallons of water every day) and dogs would quickly go feral (an assertion backed by how dogs in New Orleans responded after the evacuation in Hurricane Katrina).
Grass and weeds would grow through cracks in asphalt and on sidewalks and roadways, producing the seeds that will eventually overrun them. The power generators at the Hoover Dam will keep the lights on in Las Vegas perhaps the longest of anywhere in the United States. But those automated systems will eventually be undone, a dam operator explains in "Life After People," because of tiny mollusks that will eventually grow so numerous that they will block cooling pipes, and an automated system will shut down one of the world's engineering marvels. Most of our monuments -- the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty -- will collapse in 300 years or less, undone by rust and rot.
What will be the last of us?
Probably the things we jettison from the planet.
The National Geographic Channel says that our footprints, flag and television cameras on the moon will last millenniums. For Weisman, there are the 1970s-launched Voyager capsules with their sounds and sights of humanity etched onto a "12-inch gold-plated copper analog disk" contained in a "gold-anodized aluminum box." It holds diagrams of DNA and the solar system, pictures of children and cities, and 26 musical recordings, including Chuck Berry and an aria from Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
Scientists expect it to last at least a billion years but probably a lot longer, Weisman writes.
"By then, tectonic upheavals or an expanded sun might well have rendered any signs of us left on Earth down to their molecular essence. It might be the closest that any human artifact would get to eternity."
There are also, Weisman notes, our radio and television signals, beaming into space forever because radio waves just keep expanding until, at some theoretical point, they get so dispersed in the ongoing noise of the universe that they couldn't be distinguished anymore: "To the limits of our universe and our knowledge, they are immortal, and broadcast images of our world and our times and memory are there with them."
So, long after our lovely little blue planet is reduced to a lifeless rock, somewhere in interstellar space billions of years from now, there will be "Gunsmoke" and "The Twilight Zone" and "Gilligan's Island" and "Aftermath." Little specks of energy bearing witness that once, in a small corner of the universe, we stood upright, looked at the stars and contemplated the day of our own demise.