This week, the Sears Tower in Chicago collapsed, London was swallowed by the Thames and Atlanta was taken over by wild beasts on a television show called Life After People. Ordinarily the History Channel, which aired it, uses old footage and photographs to bring the past to life. But last year the network decided to envision, with the help of time-lapse photography and computer graphics, what would happen to the world if, from some unspecified cause, every last human being died. Over the course of two hours, highways disappeared under meadows, collapsing cities turned into verdant hillocks and automobiles crumbled into dust.
It was macabre but riveting. Life After People became the most-watched programme in the history of the History Channel. Hence this season’s 10-part follow-up, which has just begun to air. It is not the only evidence of a new fascination with human extinction. Two years ago in the US, Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us became one of the top 10 non-fiction bestsellers of the year. This spring Fox bought the rights to turn it into a major film.
Mortality is an obsession as old as our culture (“Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return”). So is Judgment Day. Extinction, though, is a relatively recent worry. Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” still shocks us with its vision of man winding up, like other species, “blown about the desert dust, / Or seal’d within the iron hills.”
What is the appeal of Life After People? It is fun to watch things break down and blow up on television, of course. But there was a vindictive serves-you-right tone to last year’s film: “San Francisco’s stately wooden Victorians are now only useful as timber,” says a gravelly voiced narrator as a street is consumed by flames. The same voice describes the crumbling of Manhattan: “The tunnels echo with the sound of cracking steel and cement as the streets above are sucked into the underground.” Such scenes rub mankind’s nose in the fact of its impermanence. A few stone-chiselled memorials will survive, from the pyramids to Mount Rushmore, but mould spores will devour our libraries and acid will melt our films. The History Channel view is Tennyson’s, recast in a mood not of dread but of glee.
A frequent technique is to go to places that humans have abandoned and to see what has happened to them: the island of Hashima 35 years after the Japanese coal industry abandoned it, for instance, or parts of Gary, Indiana, that have been derelict for decades. The news is mixed. If you are human, these are catastrophes. If you are an ailanthus tree, you will have a different perspective.