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precarious since 1997 | by maryann johanson

The History Channel looks at ‘Life After People’

One of the most fascinating aspects of the movie I Am Legend is the glimpse it offers us of a world suddenly devoid of humans, with everything we’ve built given over to a poignant, lonely decay. We’ve had such a dramatic impact on the natural world, from our manicured lawns to our sprawling cities to our actual geological engineering (as with dams). How long would it all endure if we suddenly disappeared?

That’s the question Life After People, a new History Channel special documentary, explores. (It debuts on Monday, January 21st, at 9pm Eastern.) And it’s a fascinating — and eerie — speculative requiem for humankind and all our great and mighty works, cuz it turns out, they ain’t so great and mighty after all, not from the planet’s perspective.
The two-hour show takes us from the day after all six and a half billion people on the planet suddenly disappeared all the way through to… well, I won’t tell you how far in the future the film takes us, because that was part of the suspense for me, wondering just how long — or how short — a time it would take for all evidence of our presence to be erased. (No explanation for the disappearance is offered, by the way, for the sudden disappearance of humanity, but I’d like to think that our intergalactic alien parents finally showed up and took us home. Purely coincidental, I’m sure, is the fact that one of the contributors to the show, as well as one of its onscreen narrators, is SF novelist and futurist David Brin.)

The tidbits we learn along the way are highly intriguing: Nuclear power plants are smart enough to shut themselves down, so they wouldn’t melt down without our surpervision; the Hoover Dam is resilient enough to keep running for perhaps years without us, and even when invasive sealife finally clogged its mechanisms, its concrete superstructure could well be the longest-surviving artifact of 20th-century construction. (It will be outlasted by the Roman Coliseum, because the ancients used a far more enduring kind of concrete.)

How long would the Eiffel Tower last? The Empire State Building? What would happen to our pet dogs and cats? Which urban pests would do suprisingly well without us, and which wouldn’t?

The imagery of weeds and clover and grass and trees overrunning iconic skylines and famous monuments toppling is certainly cool; but it’s the shake-your-soul and rattle-your-brain concepts behind Life After People that are the most haunting. Anyone with even a slight philosophical bent has wondering, Why are we here? We don’t often consider the opposite: What if we weren’t? Here ya go.

P.S. I’m actually smack in the middle of reading the nonfiction book The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, which covers the exact same subject matter in an even more philosophical way. If you find Life After People as captivating as I do, you’ll love this book, too (which appears to have no connection whatsoever to Life After People).

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