Exinction Porn comes to television

What would happen if human beings were to disappear tomorrow? How long would it take for life to recover from our war on Terra, and how long would our buildings, bridges and other artificial structures last?

That’s the premise of Aftermath: Population Zero, a National Geographic documentary that aired recently on The History Channel. The show examines what happens from the moment of our disappearance to 25,000 years in the future. (It’s a thought experiment, so no reason is offered for our instant exit.)

A previous documentary from the History Channel, Life After People, had covered similar territory. Both films appear to have been inspired and informed by
The World Without Us, a bestselling 2007 nonfiction work by Alan Weismann, which expanded on an article of the same name for Discover magazine.

Call it “extinction porn.” In Aftermath, there’s a voyeuristic appeal in seeing flora and fauna take back the city streets, as time-lapsed buildings crumble like sandcastles. According to the film, it would take Earth only about 200 years to erase humanity’s smudgy fingerprint. Concrete expands and freezes in buildings, causing them to fall. Iron rusts, bringing down bridges and monuments. Only the largest structures are left behind, such as the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty. (Thanks, 19
th century France).

These landmarks are next to go; the film shows Liberty shedding her copper-plate drapery, followed decades later by her torch-bearing arm. Her head follows, spiraling to the ground in computer-generated rubble.

All things metal are destined for relatively quick ending, geologically speaking. Everything but the kitchen sink, that is; a gleaming fixture shown stranded in a running stream has thousands of years left. Plastic is even hardier, especially pieces that aren’t exposed to sunlight. A child’s stroller and a cell phone casing are shown being overgrown and buried. Even civilization’s largest efforts are the playthings of entropy. Aftermath envisions cascading floodwaters demolishing one immense dam after another.

It’s all win-win for the furred, feathered and finned, who go to work fast. Dogs return to hunting packs within a few weeks after our exit. Pigs turn hirsute in a few generations, with the domestic selection for hairless, pink bodies removed. Not that the absence of humans in Aftermath is a boon to every last living species. For a change, the cockroaches don’t come out on top; without central heating of our buildings and homes, the bugs cannot survive the winters of northern climates. (And why should any critter with an exoskeleton expect to handle what Keith Richards couldn’t?)

As for whatever damage we’ve inflicted on the climate, Aftermath speculates that within a few hundred years our carbon emissions will be scrubbed from the skies by the phytoplankton-packed oceans.

After 25,000 years, there’s very little evidence that humans were ever here. The film argues that our most lasting legacy won’t be on Earth at all. On the moon, the remnants of the Apollo missions of the late twentieth century will sit undisturbed for eons. After all our technical triumphs, from the flying buttress to YouTube, all we have to show for ourselves is a US flag, some camera equipment, and lunar buggy. It’s Shelley’s Ozymandius updated. ‘Look upon my works, ye mighty, and wonder where the hell all the rest went.’

In the Talking Heads song, Nothing But Flowers, David Byrne sang from the point of view of someone in the future, who misses the billboards, Pizza Huts and 7-11s; all of civilization’s fast-paced bling, now ‘nothing but flowers.’ In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel
Galapagos, a group of holidaying entertainers are stranded during a nuclear exchange, and the story tracks their descendents as they devolve over time into seal like creatures, whose diminishing intelligence shades into in-the-moment joyfulness. Similarly, in postapocalyptic films like On the Beach, The Omega Man and I Am Legend, there’s always been at least one Homo sap left to battle off irradiated zombies or his own demons. Extinction porn is different: it assumes we’re already gone, every last one of us. The buzz we get is in seeing equilibrium return, and the planet’s other denizens finally getting their place in the sun.

If there’s anything hopeful in extinction porn, it’s that this isn’t from the parochial viewpoint of fictional survivors. It’s the point of view of life itself – a force as insistent and indomitable, as a song title by the Eels puts it, “a daisy through the concrete.” If we can maintain that perspective, than perhaps there’s hope for us yet.