Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Life After People

By David Luhrssen
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With global climate change, the war on terrorism and the dark roster of Oscar nominees, it’s little wonder that anxious thoughts are turned toward an uncertain future. Apocalyptic daydreams have gained renewed force. While Protestant fundamentalists look forward to a Rapture that will spirit away the “righteous,” leaving everyone else to Armageddon, others imagine a future where no one is spared. The Will Smith movie I AmLegend and a nonfiction book on the Earth minus humanity are two recent manifestations. Another is the History Channel documentary “Life After People,” out now on DVD.

“Life After People” suffers from the grade school production values considered as state of the art by many cable producers. It features a stentorian narrator, probably the same voice heard on trailers for disaster movies (“In a world where...”), plus crummy and repetitious CGI involving grass and weeds growing and buildings crumbling before our eyes. Worse is that familiar duh-dum, basso profundo soundtrack signifying the approach of doom.

On the other hand, it also features a small group of expert commentators, mostly biologists and engineers, who offer interesting speculation on the world after tomorrow. “Life After People” avoids the question of how humanity might disappear, focusing entirely on what would begin to happen the next morning. It’s fodder for thought if nothing else.

According to the engineers, most electrical power would stop within days, except for wind-driven turbines, turning as long as the gears remain intact, and the current from Hoover Dam, that triumph of Art Deco technology. The lights of Las Vegas might burn for another year.

Animals will notice our absence. The more unnatural breeds of dogs, including the snarling short-legged monstrosities, will go extinct; the rest will revert to hunting in packs. Cats will adapt to the wild and may even evolve new features. The ranks of mice and rats, grown dependent on us for food and vulnerable to cats and other predators, will shrink. The jury is out on the cockroaches. Some say they will die off in cold climates without artificial heat. Others are betting on their survival. Species pushed to the margin of civilization, including bears and wolves, will range freely along roads where mankind once trod.

Plants will thrive without our interference. The Earth will turn green as weeds and vines work their way through every crevice and chink in the masonry, eventually forming new layers of topsoil over the asphalt jungles. What’s most fascinating about the science behind “Life After People” is realizing that civilization is maintained through the constant effort of weeding, patching and painting. In temperate zones plants will pry apart most roads and walls over time. Mold will devour our books. Anything made of metal, from cars to the Golden Gate Bridge, will oxidize and corrode and revert to the form in which it was taken from the ground. Ten thousand years after our disappearance, few traces will remain of human handiwork except the Great Pyramids, the Great Wall of China and Mount Rushmore.

“Life After People” is a reminder of nature’s strength and power of regeneration. The astrophysicist interviewed for the documentary also reminds us of the mystery of human consciousness. Several other species have evolved skills, “cleverness” as he calls it, but in this world only people have had the ability to wonder what it all means.

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