I’m writing and half-watching a program on the History program, Life After People. This episode is about what happens to the dead bodies.
I sort of hate myself for watching this. It is such a misanthropic idea – earth without people, or as they say on the program: Earth, Population Zero.
In the opening credits, it shows various destructive scenarios. New York gone, the Statue of Liberty’s arm and torch broken off, and the skyline of Houston, Texas being assaulted by what appears to be rockets or meteors.
Yet they’re so realistic, and it’s such a darkly fascinating cue for the darkness inside me that I can’t turn it off. Thus resigned to watching this, I have learned that in the International Space Station is what is called the Immortality Drive, which contains the DNA codes for Steven Hawkings, Steven Colbert, and a Playboy model. “The Immortality Drive may be man’s best shot at preserving the species in a life after people,” says the voiceover, “but we will see if it can really last forever.”
Now it’s attacking art. “In the time of humans…” is a phrase that the narrator keeps using. “In the time of humans” … as if there was any other time that was relevant. The narrator says that the Sistine Chapel is better off without humans. “Without the annual press of two million tourists,” he says, “there are no ascending currents of human body heat. The frescoes on the ceiling, including God and Adam, are safe … at least for now.”
The idea that the Sistine Chapel has any meaning at all without human beings is laughable. What Michaelangelo created was transcendent – but that also means that the knowledge of it is enough. We don’t have to have the actual thing to value it (I’ve never seen it, except in pictures, but I know I value it deeply because it is evidence of the greatness that man can achieve.)
Six months after people. Huts in Antarctica thrive because the average temperature is negative three degrees below zero. Mold and insects do not exist. Cans of meat from 1919 are still on the shelves, and the narrator says they’ll survive for centuries more. And next is footage of meats – actual, recognizable meats, hanging from hooks, from 1919 which the narrator says is also edible and will continue to be for two hundred more years at least.
But what does “edible” mean in this context? Edible for whom? If there are no humans, what value is the meat, whether or not it was slaughtered today or in the Middle Ages? A man tells the story that a mastodon came up through the ices, and scientists in 1928 cooked it and served it for dinner at a meeting in Paris.
“How did it taste?”
“It tasted like rotten meat. It’s been buried in the ice for ten thousand years. But it is edible.”
I suppose by that definition, balloons, lint, shoes and mice are edible.
They’re attacking Houston and Boston specifically.
The USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides”
Um… Cara? Why are you liveblogging this? I do not know. It feels important.
Anyway, it says that nine months after people, the search to see what survives become more intense. Back to Boston. The USS Constitution’s hull can not withstand the constant infiltration of water. The water starts leaking, shrinking and expanding and rotting. Automatic bilge pumps would drain the water, but without it, the Constitution would remain afloat for a year, maybe less, then sink.
Three years after people, the International Space Station still orbits, but without constant recalibrations from terrestrial stations, it drifts off course, losing two miles of altitude each month. It will fall to earth, and destroy itself in the process. Oh, and here’s the scene I described earlier, with what I thought were missiles descending upon Houston.
“The Immortality Drive proves to be quite mortal, after all.”
It is now showing Hashima Island in which all the buildings are dead, empty, destroyed, concrete walls fallen, metal netting strewn across the ground, “thirty-five years of wind and rain.”
“Mankind’s bids for immortality have long odds.”
Fifty years after people. This is just unbearably horrible. The images catch in my cerebellum, marking themselves in memory.
Domestic parrots escaped into the wild, and retain the words taught to them by their vanished masters, says the narrator. Strange, how poignant that our language would live on in the treetops. American English spoken by tropical birds.
A man says that parrots live about sixty years. So it’s plausible that fifty years after the last human being is gone, and our language has not been uttered for all that time, we could hear “human noises” in the wild. Well, we couldn’t hear them. But they would exist. And I wonder if the domesticated parrots would pass their words on to other parrots, learning from each other like little babies.
Seventy-five years after humans. The Bunker Hill bridge is decaying (strange, they didn’t choose to profile the Golden Gate Bridge for this.) A construction expert says bird poop and rainwater would wear away the protective plastic coating on the Bunker Hill bridge, and says that the lethal combination partially caused the bridge failure in Minnesota in 2007.
One hundred years after people, the combination would corrode the steel of the cables that are suspended between the two extremities. The bridge can maintain its structure until fifty percent of the cables failed. Spectacular failure of the bridge.
Lady Liberty’s torch is now about to die. Without humans, it is inevitable that she would crumble.
Now back to Houston. The domed stadiums (Enron Field!) have spent one hundred years as subtropical paradises. In the time of humans, it cost $500,000 per year to maintain the Astrodome. After a century, in great chunks, the steel and lucite domes come raining down. The visuals are astonishing, of course. But it hurts to see this. Hurts very much indeed.
One hundred and fifty people years without people makes Boston look like an overgrown garden. The John Hancock building, eaten by vegetation, falls in a spectacular collapse, reminiscent of September 11. “The urban jungle is now just jungle,” says the narrator.
The scene of two gorgeous red parrots saying, “Hello, hello” over the empty, garden-like, destroyed city is almost too much to bear. “Though these parrots have never interacted with humans, their ancestors did, and some remnants of speech remain.”
The drop-off of the language would be about 200 years. There is no benefit for the parrots to keep using human words, there is no evolutionary compulsion to, and they are not rewarded. So the language slowly dies.
Two hundred years after humans.
“The tallest building in Houston has had its windows blown out by hurricanes.” That’s you, Shell Tower. The insides are corroded by rain.
And then the building is stripped to its bones. Oh heavens. This picture is just overwhelming.
As someone who loves architecture almost as much as I love Enron, it is actually painful to see buildings in this state. Then the steel frame corrodes and collapses.
There would be no panic in the streets. It would be loud, I imagine, that collapse, but then after it falls, deathly silent, as if it had absorbed all the potential for sound.
In New York Harbor, the torch falls off the Statue of Liberty, then her head, then other parts. But on the ocean floor, the impression of the torch would remain for perhaps forever – much like dinosaur prints.
That doesn’t qualify for immortality in my estimation.
Five hundred years after people, the Sistine Chapel would finally collapse.
Ten thousand years after people, most traces of human culture or existence has vanished. The planet has gotten warmer (even without people!) The meats in the Antarctica are gone. The huts are gone.
One hundred million years after people, every mark of man is gone. What survives is not what people made, but the simple mineral compounds they were made of.
Our teeth, the dentine, will survive. But little else.
Years ago, I watched a show about dinosaurs that made me wistful and astonished at the power of the earth. Now, I feel the maturity of those emotions. I feel like I want to grasp every human achievement, hold it in my hand and see to which mathematical sigils to which it will acquiesce.
I will miss us. Even when I’m not here, I will miss us.