Death Becomes Us

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What would happen to the planet if the human race were to suddenly vanish? The short answer is this: all the animals high-five, and then commence eating one another. Pretty much everything falls down. And then the plants grow over everything. That's it. Good night! Pleasant dreams.

A longer answer can be found in The History Channel's 2-hour apocalyptic extravaganza Life After People. (An even longer and more interesting answer can be found in Alan Weisman's book The World Without Us—and I hope Mr. Weisman got some royalties for this not-so-subtle adaptation of his book.) Prepare yourself, though—the longer answer is still pretty much the same answer as above, only with CGI enhancement.

The point of Life After People is clear—life would go even if we weren't here to catch it on video and post it on YouTube. None but the most narcissistic among us would disagree with that, but the details as to how the earth might adapt to our absence, given the effects we've already had, are interesting to examine. And the History Channel does a fair job at dramatizing that retaking—mainly by destroying national and world landmarks in dramatic fashion, before and after every commercial break. But also, more effectively, by showing us real and contemporary evidence of how the earth reclaims itself. The filmmakers take the audience back to the once-thriving town of Pripyat, Ukraine—abandoned suddenly in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster—and shows us what a city looks like, some twenty years after people have gone. Owls roost in what used to be a kindergarten, perching near a child's old doll. The field of a soccer stadium has already started to revert back to low deciduous forest. This is the part of Life After People that carries some weight, because this isn't CGI-aided projection.

Once away from Pripyat, though, the show indulges in some dubious conclusions, such as the idea that when the glass cracks and falls out of high-rises and skyscrapers, and wind and nature and birds begin to reclaim them, that housecats will somehow make them their homes. Yes, cats will live in giant jungle-like high-rises. Which makes sense, I guess, since at that point, these structures would be somewhat akin to those giant shag-carpet cat-towers that are mainly bought by single women who sell turkey legs at the Renaissance Festival.

But it's the central conceit of Life After People that I couldn't get past—that for the sake of the discussion, it's assumed that the human race just suddenly vanishes. Gone without any apparent cause or lingering effect. I find this troublesome because the chances of that happening to us in real life are exactly zero. What wipes us out would have natural effect, too. Or, failing that, the remains we leave behind would, at least temporarily, until our housepets were done with us. (And after we bought them that shag-carpet cat tower, too.) Speculating about what might happen if we were to all suddenly vanish is something along the same lines as wondering hey, what if OJ really didn’t do it, or what if Douglas Bruce had some modicum of common sense and decorum? Interesting to ponder, maybe, but none of those has a chance of being true. Not a chance. -- Teague Bohlen

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