2009.01.14 When we're no longer here

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

I rented a cheery movie for the holidays called “Life After People.” Just a light comedy about what would happen to the planet if there were no longer any humans living on it.

No, it’s far from a comedy, but it sounded rather interesting. Maddie loaded the disk, I told my wife what it was about and her reaction wasn’t positive.

Something like this: Who cares what the planet looks like if we’re not around to see it? She was more interested in learning how to prevent the situation from happening in the first place.

The film—patterned after Alan Weisman’s book, “The World Without Us”—doesn’t make any assumptions about how the Earth became unpeopled. It just starts off on day one with everything looking normal. No evidence of a massive nuclear war. No sign of a suffocating dust cloud from a meteor hit. We’re just not here.

Within a few hours, power generating plants begin to run out of fuel and the planet gradually goes dark.

There’s one glaring exception: Las Vegas. The glittering lights of that city would continue for months until the Hoover Dam coolant pipes finally become clogged with mussels and the generating plant shuts down.

Pets locked up inside houses could survive for a few days and those outside would begin competing for food. Those suffering the most would be the animals that humans bred for appearance. The short legs and small mouths of a bulldog or terrier put them at a distinct disadvantage in the fight for survival.

Within six months, rats and mice are running out of food and are forced to return to the wild where they flourished before us. Deer are seen grazing on lawns in towns. Coyotes and bobcats move into the suburbs.

After a year, the breakup of sidewalks and highways is underway as plants take root in cracks. Fires caused by lightning strikes would burn uncontrolled.

After five years, plant life covers many urban surfaces as grass, vines and saplings spread. Many roads start to disappear.

The deterioration of a city isn’t all speculation. The movie takes viewers to Prypiat, Ukraine, a city that was abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 22 years ago.

Within 25 years, sea water will flood cities such as London and Amsterdam which are kept dry by human engineering. High rise windows begin to crack and shatter through the freeze/thaw cycles.

Fifty years after we’re gone, wood frame houses will show significant deterioration. Steel structures such as bridges are showing signs of strain from neglect.

Except in very dry climates, hundreds of millions of automobiles would have corroded into barely recognizable heaps within 75 years. The world’s major bridges would begin to collapse within a century.

In a few more years, streets with subways below would collapse into the flooded tunnels. A new wild landscape would rise vertically onto tall buildings.

Eventually the skyscrapers would tumble. Within 500 years, modern concrete would give way as the rebar inside expands.

In a thousand years, cities would appear much as they did before human settlement, with fallen buildings becoming new hills. In 10,000 years, there’s really not much trace of us remaining. Mount Rushmore, the Pyramids, portions of the Great Wall—that’s about it. Eventually the glaciers would be back to wipe it all clean in the northern hemisphere.

The music and the narrator make for a very annoying movie, but it’s fascinating to watch how things would change. Eventually it all works back to the way things were—a pristine wilderness that must have been extremely frightful to a human being.

What we call wilderness now is actually quite tame and few people would want to go back to those really wild times.

I can’t help but think of the head start the disintegration would have at my house. Grass encroaching on the edges of the sidewalk. Weeds firmly entrenched along the back fence. Animals in the walls and ants, in season, in the kitchen. Corrosion expanding across the old van. A large grizzly bear in the basement. And on it goes.

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