Embracing The Apocalypse: A World Without People
“If civilization goes down, that
Would be an event to contemplate.”
(Robinson Jeffers, “May-June, 1940”)
Human-centered popular folktales of Apocalypse and Doomsday narratives of every imaginable scenario are undeniably as powerful and plentiful as they have been from the beginnings of human narrative tradition. Indeed, apocalyptic events permeate a plethora of grand narratives from myriad cultures and textual sources that prominently, almost ecstatically, feature and carefully describe the gory details of our violent end times. They are set in the future, and almost all revolve around human-centered stories complete with often similarly violent narratives, inevitable tropes of conflict, judgment, drama, and resolution, the stops we require of any genre or tradition in human narrative form.
At the center of apocalyptic vision we find, perhaps predictably, a human-dominant form of speciesism, revealing a widespread, almost universally held belief in the dominance of human beings as a species. Human beings are placed at the center of events and narratives, even narratives that don’t involve human beings. This is something that often goes unnoticed, but it is especially notable in apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and depeopled futuristic visions.
The plethora of doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic narratives are far too numerous to list, from religious scripture and Revelation, to secular visions of end times, to the myriad, often bizarre and insane sounding predictions of the end by various individuals and groups. All are narratives of human-centered destruction; some invoke the end of the earth, and some portray the end of people and human civilization; but all embrace, and seem to enjoy visions of the end. We cannot agree on much, but people agree that the end is near, the end is coming, and the end is usually defined as the end of people and human civilization. As Daniel Wojcik writes in The End of the World As We Know It:
“Religious apocalypticism and its secular counterparts may differ in terms of underlying premises and the details of doomsday, but the proponents of such beliefs – whether tele-evangelists, authors of best- selling paperbacks on Biblical prophecy, seers of the Virgin Mary, New Age Visionaries, Hopi prophets, survivalists, or futurologists – agree that catastrophe is imminent.” (Wojcik 1997: 2)
Television, popular culture, film; all are permeated with human-centered narratives of end times. There is a growth industry in images of total annihilation and destruction. We are indeed an unusual species, a species endlessly enraptured by narratives of our own demise. We insist we are better than other animals. Perhaps ironically then, what makes us different – and supposedly far superior to other animals – is our ability to know that we will eventually die. The obsession we have with the end of the human species is perhaps even more pronounced than our obsessions with violence, sex, and death.
One of the interesting things about our fascination with our own demise is our relative lack of interest in the demise of the Earth or the other animal species that live on the Earth. It is not that we are not interested in the end of the Earth and the destruction of other species. No. Our interest in Earth, the environment and other species is primarily in relation to their usefulness to humanity. From the fiery and widely-held current belief in “The Rapture,” to the raging popularity of end times as predicted in the Mayan calendar, we cling to our people-centric doomsday scenarios as reassuring dramatic narratives, especially when we are not responsible. If the end is inevitable, if it is “out of our hands,” particularly if it is “God’s plan.” This way we know what is coming and avoid all responsibility and guilt. We dominate and control the end narratives as we manipulate them to conform to our tastes or our religious beliefs or our whims. As Wojcik explains:
“Apocalypticism, as a tragic and fatalistic mode of thought, offers privileged explanations that ‘unveil’ the otherwise obscure meanings behind events and experiences, reassuring believers that current crises and social evils are part of a predetermined endtimes scenario orchestrated by God.” (Wojcik 1997: 55)
Apocalyptic thinking insists that the Apocalypse is a future event, never acknowledging that it is a current event, taking place as we speak. Scientists have already (thoroughly and repeatedly) given us the “revelation” we have been waiting for: global warming is destroying the Earth. While there are many other scientifically proven parallel methods of global destruction that are also taking place, the scientific community has already declared judgment day as something probably unstoppable and begun in the past by human beings especially with regard to global warming. Many missed the revelation and many even dismiss it and the science behind it and other equally viable scientifically proven methods by which we destroy the planet.
The international scientific community agrees that humans are responsible for global warming and the massive changes that will come to the Earth as a result. Human kind has perhaps already begun an Apocalypse that will make the Earth uninhabitable for people and for much wildlife and ecological systems on Earth as we know them. This is the “revelation” of Apocalypse we have been waiting for; and because of this, we are already beyond “judgment day,” scientifically thinking. So why do we insist on freaky, ridiculous and preposterous forms of Apocalypse and Judgment day scenarios set in the future?
The only scientific question about global warming that remains is how quickly the destruction will happen? As so many largely conservative (non-scientists) attempt to discredit the reality of global warming, they also reject the idea that apocalypse is probably upon us here and now, it is already revealed. Apocalypse, as it turns out, has nothing to do with Gods and Christianity, much less the hilarious visions of the disappearance of the “righteous” into heaven and the eternal damnation of the “sinners” into the Lake of Fire. As much as I am drawn to the idea that the ignorant would suddenly disappear en masse one day, the “Rapture” is yet another human-centered apocalyptic narrative that is very effectively employed to force people to embrace ignorance and folklore over science and facts.
Rejection of science and logic is often at the center of apocalyptic narrative. In its denial of the legitimacy of scientific proof of global warming, this thinking exemplifies what Christopher Sharrett locates as, “…the need to enforce the will-to-myth, that is, to legitimate false consciousness and to reassert primitive views of human interchange” (1999: 422). Sharrett also notes that “the embrace of apocalypticism by dominant culture,” goes hand in hand with the dismissal of logical critical thinking, particularly what he calls, “radical and dialectical thinking” (1999: 421). We are thus a species equally dedicated to both the obliteration of the environment as we are the obliteration of scientific truth, much less any radical eco-critical Marxist critique of capitalism and its role in the destruction of the earth and people.
But our obsession with apocalypse and our human-centered thinking have also severely limited our ability to envision and embrace a world without people – a future Earth rid of the human species. Nevertheless, we can find a lineage of these types of images and ideas in film history and a number of popular television programs about such a depeopled Earth, even if they are themselves rife with speciecism; people-centered narratives without people.
In 1995, in his study of apocalyptic film, Sharrett presciently observed that “the apocalypse of postmodernity is almost always couched in that very popular misuse of apocalypse not as revelation, but doomsday, disaster, the end” (1993: 4, emphasis mine). I wish to embrace and re-read “apocalypse” by looking at eco-critical filmic and televisual visions of a de/peopled planet. From the Greek word, “apokálypsis,” apocalypse is most often defined as the end of human civilization, in a very negative sense, but I insist on seeing it as a positive thing since it would entail the eradication of the most destructive species, humankind.
Perhaps more importantly, “apocalypse” is also connected to a lifting of a veil, a revealing of prophesies of the end of the world, and an unveiling of previously unknown “truths.” I emphatically stress then, the importance of the term “revelation,” in association with apocalypse, because it is in the continual misuse of the word “apocalypse” that we try to avoid the fact that apocalypse has already been revealed and begun taking place; it has been scientifically proven and “revealed.” By insisting that we no longer need wait for the revealing of the apocalypse that has already begun I am insisting that we return to the original definition of “apocalypse.” The veil has been lifted. The apocalypse is upon us. Take a look around. Simply put: the earth would be far better off without people. Obviously there is no way of predicting what will ultimately take out the human race, I am not concerned with that question here. From global warming to any number of scientific scenarios, it is pretty much agreed that the end of people is inevitable. I see this as a good thing.
One example of a popular and completely illogical apocalyptic narrative is the widespread embrace of The Rapture, and significantly, the word “rapture” is derived from Middle French rapture, via the Middle Latin raptura (“seizure, rape, kidnapping”) from Latin raptus, “a carrying off.” But a popular definition of the experience of “rapture” is the state of being transported by a lofty emotion: ecstasy. I argue, as many scientists do, that what will be “left behind” after the demise of people during this apocalypse is neither “sinners” nor a Lake of Fire, but an earth that could hopefully heal itself over many centuries, even many millennia. Another revelation, embraced by radical environmentalists, is that only the inevitable and complete destruction of people would allow the earth an environmental second coming, so to speak.
Recently, a number of scientists and filmmakers have given a great deal of thought about how the earth would fare if people were to suddenly disappear. Though we leave a great deal of damage behind us, many write very optimistically about a future Earth without people. Imagining such a world, Bob Holmes, in an article in New Scientist, invokes an almost enthusiastic, even raptus tone:
“Humans are undoubtedly the most dominant species the Earth has ever known. In just a few thousand years we have swallowed up more than a third of the planet’s land for our cities, farmland and pastures. By some estimates, we now commandeer 40 per cent of all its productivity. And we’re leaving quite a mess behind: ploughed-up prairies, razed forests, drained aquifers, nuclear waste, chemical pollution, invasive species, mass extinctions and now the looming specter of climate change. If they could, the other species we share Earth with would surely vote us off the planet. Now just suppose they got their wish. Imagine that all the people on Earth – all 6.5 billion of us and counting – could be spirited away tomorrow, transported to a re-education camp in a far-off galaxy. (Let’s not invoke the mother of all plagues to wipe us out, if only to avoid complications from all the corpses). Left once more to its own devices, Nature would begin to reclaim the planet, as fields and pastures reverted to prairies and forest, the air and water cleansed themselves of pollutants, and roads and cities crumbled back to dust […]
All things considered, it will only take a few tens of thousands of years at most before almost every trace of our present dominance has vanished completely. Alien visitors coming to Earth 100,000 years hence will find no obvious signs that an advanced civilization ever lived here.” (Holmes 2006)
I consider Holmes’s writing a form of apocalyptic revelation. It does not arise very dramatically from a religious group or a mystic revelation; no visions of parting seas, no dramatic CGI effects, no sadness over the loss of humankind, and yet it leaves the reader transported and brightened with the good news that perhaps the planet may heal itself long after we are gone. In all honesty, it probably will not be that simple in reality, but I see this as a very positive apocalyptic vision, and I am ecstatic to find others who agree that a depeopled Earth does indeed have a chance. This is the point of the National Geographic Special entitled Aftermath: Population Zero (2008).
Aftermath is a very well made television special about the world beyond people. Like many in this unusual subgenre, it insists on a timeline that begins “AP” or “After People,” as opposed to “AD,” or “BC,” as used in the traditional Julian or Gregorian calendar. In Aftermath, the further away the chapters get from the end of people, the better the earth does. The excellent program is far more responsible than other programs about the demise of the earth in that it spends a considerable amount of time describing the way people have destroyed the earth and it ends on a very positive note, more or less as described by Holmes in New Scientist. A reviewer on Amazon.com calls Aftermath “a cool ride”:
“Well, after the atomic plants blow up and many of the pets die off and the cars stop running, things start to get wild. Really wild. Trees take over, cities become cooler, the oceans start to fill up with fish. National Geographic really hooked me, with great effects, real animals like tigers running about, and just a really cool ride.”
Aftermath appears to be loosely based on the influential book, The World Without Us (2007), by Alan Weisman, which reportedly forms the basis of several futuristic television programs about a depeopled planet earth, including Life After People (2008-09). Weisman asks us in the first pages to accompany him on an apocalyptic reverie about what might happen to the world if people were suddenly made extinct.
“Let us try a creative experiment. Suppose that the worst has happened, human extinction is a fait accompli. Not by nuclear calamity, asteroid collision, or anything ruinous enough to also wipe out most everything else, leaving whatever remained in some radically altered reduced state. Nor by some grim eco-scenario in which we agonizingly fade, dragging many more species with us in the process. Instead, picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished […] Could Nature ever obliterate all our traces? How would it undo our monumental cities and public works, and reduce our myriad plastics and toxic synthetics back to benign basis elements.” (Weisman 2007: 3-4)
Reviewing Weisman’s book in The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler immediately grasps the possibilities for adaptation to media entertainment, noting how “Weisman turns the destruction of our civilization and the subsequent rewilding of the planet into a Hollywood-worthy, slow-motion disaster spectacular and feel-good movie rolled into one” (Schuessler 2007). It took very little time for the best seller to fuel and inspire several television programs about life in a world after people. In March of 2008, Neely Tucker of the Washington Post writes about the instant success of the book and its spin-offs. The vision of a planet “AP,” is indeed great fodder for the televisual realm. As Tucker notes with some degree of sarcasm:“It turns out that the world will be such a swell place without any humans around – better sunsets, cleaner water, less traffic – that we can’t wait to see it. Even if, you know, we’re all dead. Since last summer, when Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us became a surprise bestseller by imagining what would happen to the planet if all 6.5 billion humans instantly disappeared, the idea has taken hold in the popular imagination. Weisman says his book is being translated into 30 different languages, and the film rights have been sold. The History Channel’s riff on the same idea, ‘Life After People,’ became the most watched show in that channel’s history in January, pulling in 5.4 million viewers, and is being released on DVD on March 18. Tomorrow at 8 p.m., the National Geographic Channel airs its version of Earth without humanoids, ‘Aftermath: Population Zero.’”(Tucker 2008)
Life After People insists on a “terrifying” human-centered apocalyptic future. Oddly, in this post apocalyptic program, even after our destruction, we are seemingly present, even when we no longer exist. Life After People is centered on a world without humans, “where predators, survival, and evolution will emerge,” as if this would be a bad thing. A detailed examination of the plotlines of Life After People demonstrates that the writers of the show simply can’t imagine or unveil a non-human-centric world. It’s never really explained why we vanish; we’re just gone, and we leave behind the artifacts of a vanished civilization to rust and decay, and eventually collapse. As one blogger put it, Life After People:
“…has everything you need for an evening of ‘family-friendly’ apoca-tainment. Narrated by a voice boasting an odd mix of menace and cheer…the series shows us just how quickly and thoroughly nature will reclaim our cities and decimate our phallic structural wonders. There’s no preaching, no wistfulness, just a technical and statistical explanation of the survival algorithm of non-human life…I often find myself on the verge of cheering when iconic buildings like the Space Needle and the Empire State Building are shown falling over into the overgrown flora beneath. Of course, these scenes of collapse are totally computer generated, and for each episode, there are only a few stock montages made to show the destruction. So in the course of one episode, the viewer must endure endless replays of the same scene. That’s my only real complaint. The rest is great, in a very weird, dissociative way. I am looking forward to…the rest of this ominous, yet totally apathetic story of how nature will pummel our civilization’s corpse into dust.”
But before I discuss Life After People, I’d like to witness a few revelations I experienced as a film viewer and a budding environmentalist. About a decade ago, scientists were puzzled when many schools of different species of fish, from the largest to the smallest, were seen gathering off the coast of North America. What was amazing was that these fish, many of which would normally consume one another, were herding together and milling about as if they were holding some sort of an international conference. They seemed to swim about one another peacefully, as if they were communicating. The incident made the nightly news and was treated as an inexplicable natural event. Scientists and pundits wondered if the event marked some sort of an upcoming natural disaster, and some wondered if these animals were somehow holding a peaceful conference that humans would never be able to understand. The idea that another species could be thinking about us seemed to excite our unquenchable egos as human beings.
Had sea creatures finally had enough of human beings destroying their environment through toxic dumping, over-fishing, offshore drilling and reckless environmental destruction of the seas? It all sounded like the plot of a movie that I’d like to see. Like many budding environmentalists who grew up reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and watching science documentaries, I was genuinely concerned about our destruction of the environment and the planet. I had not yet read eco-critical theories that explained our arrogant destructive behavior towards animals and the environment, but I knew from scientific documentaries and science class that we are a very destructive animal, perhaps the most destructive of all animals. We assume species superiority, a form of racism and imperialism that allows us to lack empathy for animals and our environment.
Like many young punk rockers, anarchists, and nihilists, I long believed that the planet would be much better off if (and when) humans were inevitably destroyed (by self annihilation or any number of possible natural disasters) and that this would be a good thing. When I sit down to watch a TV show such as When Animals Attack, (a popular Fox ‘reality’ show), I always root for the animals. Even though the music cues and editing instruct me to view the beasts as the destructive “Other,” I can’t help but feel more sympathy for the animals.
Though Antonioni largely dismissed environmentalist readings of his haunting masterwork, Red Desert (1964), was a very important film in my journey as a radical environmentalist. In Antonioni’s view of his own film, Red Desert is a study of a woman’s descent into madness, perhaps as a consequence of her inability to engage with modern industrialism. Giuliana, the central character in the film, played by Monica Vitti, is utterly alienated from her environment. She behaves like a frightened child and stands as a classic female “hysteric.” Despite Antonioni’s scolding and insistent remarks to the contrary, I cannot help but read Giuliana against the grain. For me, she is clearly a siren who is giving the viewer an apocalyptic revelation about the destruction of the earth, through oil extraction and the destruction of the land and the water.
Antonioni said that he found beauty in the newly industrialized landscape. He found modern technology and industry beautiful. This is evident in his gorgeous and emphatic rendering of steel girders, massive oil tanks, and labyrinthine pipes that hold together the ghastly infrastructure of an oil refinery like a beautiful modern puzzle. His masterful use of color, including the painting of entire fields, walls, and landscapes is painterly and majestic. Perhaps Antonioni already envisioned a world almost devoid of people. His characters seem dwarfed to an extent by the then futurist buildings and smokestacks he lovingly captures.
While I understand what Antonioni was conveying, and I oddly find myself too very much attracted to images of industrialization and waste, I want to here focus my attention on Monica Vitti, a strikingly beautiful siren figure who is almost always dressed in an environmental green frock; a madwoman whom nobody believes; a woman who sees ugly environmental destruction all around her. If we listen, if we do not see her as a madwoman, we can view her character as a witness of apocalyptic revelation. Simply put, the Earth is wasting away into filth and pollution and it is people who are responsible for the apocalypse that is already occurring. Most of the film is told through her bizarre subjective point of view, and it is punctuated by a modern synthetic and discordant soundtrack much like that of a sixties Italian sci-fi film. Her complete alienation – from her family and friends, her environment, and society, is sutured to images of polluted water, scenes of yellow smoke, and haunting lengthy takes of the petrol facilities where her husband works as an engineer.
Antonioni the painter gives us Giuliana as an antiquated Earth Goddess who physically and psychologically rejects the destructive pollution around her. But, I don’t buy into her supposed insanity. I read her as fully sane in her reaction to witnessing environmental collapse. Antonioni relied on the well-worn trope of a female hysteric. But Giuliana is no hysteric. She is the only sane member of the cast. Faced with a bleak landscape of petrol tanks, smoke and eco-disaster, Guiliana alone is disturbed by the images she sees in the industrialized Italian landscape and seascape in the film. She should be disturbed, as we all should be. For me, she is clearly a siren who is giving the viewer a revelation about environmental apocalypse as it is taking place.
A siren sister of apocalyptic revelation can be found in Carol White, played by Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’s Safe, which was released in 1995 to great critical acclaim. Both women reject their environment, or are rejected by their toxic environment, depending upon how you look at it. Carol White, like Giuliana, is treated with disdain and a lack of empathy as she descends into a kind of madness, both physical and emotional. Her husband is alarmed, confused, and finally dismissive, as she slowly sickens, presumably from the effects of a toxic modern suburban environment. Although the film never discloses any diagnosis, one can conclude that her life is slowly and utterly taken over by a disease now known as “multiple chemical insensitivity.”
At the beginning of the film, Carol is a carefree, even arrogant upper middle class housewife whose most challenging day involves being delivered the wrong color couch. Slowly, she develops unexplained and frightening responses to commonly used household products and the environment at large. It is not a beautiful sight when Carol dissolves into uncontrollable coughing spasm when she is driving in the path of exhaust fumes on the freeway. Carol’s environment is cookie cutter “beautiful,” but highly toxic. Haynes carefully portrays her slow emotional and physical breakdown. She is a woman who does not understand what is happening to her body. She is not particularly knowledgeable about the toxicity of our everyday environment. Indeed the film was ahead of its time, (revelatory) in portraying the apocalyptic nature of everyday household products and, by extension, our land and seas as toxic wastelands. At the beginning of the film Carol placidly tries to ignore her symptoms, just as many human beings placidly ignore global warming.
At a baby shower Carol suddenly has a violent unexplained and frightening asthma attack. It occurs to the viewer well before the character, that many environmental factors are toxic to Carol. Her nose bleeds when she goes to the hair salon. At the dry cleaners, she has a full-blown attack and her body goes into toxic shock including inexplicable and violent convulsions. Unlike Giuliana who walks around Red Desert in a daze, Carol White looks for help from the fringes of society, the New Age “crazies.” I see them as apocalyptic visionaries. Eventually Carol joins up with a New Age group that specializes in helping people with environmental toxicity disorders. But they are of little help. By the end of the film she is thin and wasting away, carrying an oxygen tank and moving into solitary confinement in a tiny exospheric building, far from any possible toxins, but utterly alone in a “safe” environment. Ironically then, she is safest away from people.
Safe is a disturbing and unapologetic examination of our man-made toxic environment as hell. Carol is not a crazy hysteric. Her body is having an authentic response to ecological toxicity. Neither Red Desert nor Safe offer any answers to ecological apocalypse or human destruction of the earth. Most scientists agree that we are well beyond the tipping point at which we may have stopped our inevitable destruction of the planet. One only has to read of water pollution that includes runoff from anti-depressants and other toxins from our human bodies that has been scientifically proven to cause sexual dysmorphia in amphibians to see where our planet is heading.
While Hollywood pumps out film after film, narrative after narrative about oncoming plague and apocalypse, someone almost always ruins the ending by “saving the day,” saving humanity. In Contagion, for example, we follow the threat of a deadly airborne virus as it tries to take out the human race.Plodding, dreadfully made, and rapidly edited (seemingly for those with attention deficit disorder), Contagion has a ridiculously (and supposedly) “upbeat” ending in which humans again survive. Science saves the day, and humanity will continue on in our destructive path. I went to see Contagion to see humanity killed off; at least that is what the trailer promised. Instead I saw yet another knock off apocalyptic scenario that somehow blames both Asians and an adulterous Gwyneth Paltrow for an unsuccessful pandemic that can’t quite take us out.
It was with great enthusiasm, then, that I tuned in to the History channel for their series, Life After People, hoping to enjoy a pro-apocalyptic show that embraces a depeopled planet of the future and envisions a world in which the environment eventually heals itself, perhaps other animals and organisms survive, and the world lives happily ever after without people.
But instead, as noted above, Life After People insists on a “terrifying” human-centered future even when we no longer exist. A world without humans, “where predators, survival, and evolution will emerge,” as if this would be a bad thing. How species arrogant can you get? The writers of the show simply can’t imagine a non-human-centric world.
An episode entitled ‘Toxic Revenge” exploits our fear of man-made chemicals that are unleashed “in a world without man’s help.” A major plot point shows the destruction of Niagara Falls, as if human intervention would have saved this human-centered natural site of beauty. In “Depths of Destruction,” NORAD, America’s former nuclear command center, comes under attack by the forces of the natural world, as if we should care. Interestingly, the series tries to provoke fear of the loss of the very governmental bodies that may assure our apocalyptic destruction. This type of “logic” makes the fictive Giuliana and Carol seem quite sane.
”Holiday Hell,” is yet another people-centered installment of “Life After People.” Oh, what a horrible world it would be in this post-human future where there are no longer gifts, holiday toys, and malls! Christmas trees would grow out of control without people to maintain them. The horror! One hilarious episode entitled “The Last Supper” revolves around what happens when supermarkets are freed from manager, staff and customers. It’s a capitalist nightmare; giant insects and rodents overrun supermarkets. A top-rated restaurant that is located in the second tallest building in the world is seen collapsing. Many of the images of the series are beautiful, especially if one finds beauty in destruction, but the show insists that we take these events as part of a large-scale tragedy, nothing less.
Over and over, we are required to wait for the seemingly inevitable collapse of some man-made monument, building or remnant of human civilization. If those are the images you enjoy watching, Life After People certainly delivers. But as the blogger above suggested, the poorly rendered CGI renderings of the natural destruction of man-made totems and iconic buildings is ultimately repetitive and mindless. Often the graphics make no sense in that gigantic buildings drop, but their collapse has no effect on the structures around them. Tellingly, the buildings that collapse are all well-known icons, prominent markers of human history such as the Sears Tower or The MetLife building.
Thus, as previously noted, Life After People endlessly loops back to the same images of destruction. The writers loop the stories back onto themselves in an effort to best incorporate the limited CGI effects. The non-stop narration and ominous score frequently insists on the depeopled planet narrative as a sad and terrifying scenario, as if it would be terrifying to envision the collapse of the signs that we were once here on Earth.
It is interesting that one of the most effective and haunting episodes of Life After People is not at all dependent on CGI effects or speculative biology. Instead it uses the decaying urban town of Gary, Indiana as a standing set that allows the viewer a peek at what abandoned buildings will look like after people have vanished. Once a flourishing metropolis supported by the steel industry, sections of Gary have now become vast, standing ghost towns. It’s a great standing set for a post-apocalyptic vision, and the producers of Life After People thus gleefully use actual scenes of the ravaged, decaying buildings in Gary, Indiana to show us what earth will look like “30 Years after People.” These cinematic tours through the abandoned structures are highly effective in that they are real, not CGI. Life After People similarly uses images from the Salton Sea and other ghost towns and destroyed landscapes and urbanscapes. It may be great fun to watch famous buildings fall in computer generated imagery, but it’s far more stunning to see an actual location such as Gary and the Salton Sea as they are exposed to the elements and hopefully revert over time to a more “natural” state.
Life After People also borrows heavily from The World Without Us, and spends a lot of time describing the horrific chain of events that happen immediately after the demise of people. Nuclear reactors, without humans alive to look after them, inevitably fail and cause massive destruction, and the loss of electrical power causes similar destruction, as does the release of toxic gases. In an odd way, then, these narratives and programs insist that we are indeed necessary to the world, if only to stick around and safeguard and protect it from our inventions and ourselves.
Like many similar television programs, Life After People attempts to colonize the future, even a future of a depeopled planet. I find it fascinating and compelling that even speculative biology employs rather limited fantasies that involve visual renderings (thus mastery) over people-centered projections of catastrophe. Even the post-apocalyptic depeopled narratives of TV programs such as The Future is Wild, Aftermath, and Alien Planet employ speculative biology to visualize, colonize and control the future beyond the existence of humanity. It is clear that post-human colonization and control of the vision of even a completely made-up environment lay at the center of these programs. One of the most fascinating things I find in these programs is an insistence that even when we no longer exist, we control the vision of the future: we even control the naming and taxonomical system of speculative biology of the future without us.
The Future is Wild (2003) is a highly successful British television series that aired on BBC, the Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet. It features remarkably sophisticated CGI special effects, appropriately ominous music, and is billed as “speculative evolution.” Set very far in the future, there is no mention of human beings, or how they’ve disappeared. Instead we are treated to a poker-faced nature documentary of completely made-up animals with outrageous and sometimes ridiculous names and an entirely fictional taxonomy of the myriad new species that would supposedly roam the Earth well after the demise of people.
The program is also well populated with the talking heads of numerous scientists, many of whom have notable credibility. It is hard to imagine how the scientists in the show can deliver, with a straight face, the often utterly preposterous musings of the writers of the show. They tell us, in essence, often in the pluperfect tense, what might happen after what will have happened after what has supposedly already happened in the future of the Earth. Most notably, the writers and designers of the show have invented all sorts of cool-looking CGI creatures which inhabit the envisioned planet of the future.
In The Future is Wild, scientists attempt to design the future, and even to name the animals and plants that will proliferate in it, even though we will no longer be here to do anything about whatever events actually transpire. The writers of the show arrogantly insist that our agency as humans will extend infinitely into the future, even though recorded civilization is only thousands of years old, a small blip in the historical record of the Earth. Yet, on the program, scientists confidently predict events 5, 100, and even 200 million years in the future, as if they could almost will a series of fantastic creatures and ecological environments into existence, despite any lack of scientific grounding for their speculations.
Such exotic future creatures as the amusingly named “Slithersucker,” a sort of “blob”-like, yet seemingly intelligent creature that will supposedly hang from the branches of trees and snag unsuspecting birds out of the air for food; or the “Megasquid,” a gigantic land bound Octopus which will use all eight legs to amble through the jungle, using a built in “loudspeaker” on its forehead for communication; the “Flish,” a combination bird and fish; or the dreaded “Deathgleaner,” an enormous omnivorous bat that hunts during the day, and sleeps at night – a direct inversion of the existing norms for the species.
All of these scenarios are cheerfully apocalyptic in nature. In five million years, the site for The Future is Wild reveals,
“the Earth is in the last throes of the current ice age. Humans are extinct and much of the world’s fresh water is locked up in the huge ice caps that reach as far south as Paris and north to Buenos Aires. On the edges of the ice, animals have adapted to the bitter cold and vicious winters; in the tropics, the rainforest has all but disappeared, replaced by dry savannah. Yet change is in the air – a sudden increase in volcanic eruptions pours greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the planet begins to warm up, and the melting ice creates massive, devastating floods.”
We’ll have to take this all on faith, of course, for despite the procession of poorly-lit scientists who hold forth on these predictions for the cameras, no direct chain of causality for their assertions is forthcoming. By the time 100 million – that’s 100 million years – if the future rolls around, the narration, so bloated with bogus revelation, assures us that:
“volcanoes belching out greenhouse gases [have] turned the Earth into a hothouse – sweltering, steamy, wet. Rainforests coat the land and the atmosphere is rich in carbon dioxide and oxygen. Animals adapt to the damp warmth; insects grow huge, flying insects have [huge] wingspans, and the world’s biggest creatures walk the Earth. But the Earth itself is restless. Although volcanoes have been active throughout, now, huge eruptions bring the planet to the brink of its worst disaster ever. Most of life is annihilated, leaving the world barren and empty. Or is it?”
This voice-over evokes the most specious and random speculation possible, and yet, through the agency of CGI effects and an ominous musical background, we’re expected to take it all at face value, as actual science, rather than scattershot prognostication. And at 200 million years in the future, the scenario is painted as even more dire. We have to wonder here what exactly is so dire, that new forms of life evolve, or that they are beyond our limited human imagination, that something is indeed beyond human control and even biological speculation? As the narrator intones,
“After the last great mass extinction, just a few life forms had survived, and free from old pressures and competition, they have evolved into strange and bizarre creatures – beyond imagination. The slow drift of the continents over the globe has finally brought the landmasses together into one super-continent, and most of the world is covered in a huge ocean. What new life has evolved in this ocean? What has the process of evolution done to life on the supercontinent? And what will happen next?”
What will happen next indeed? It is a classically narrated television cliffhanger – who shot humankind, and will it survive to return for the next season of programming? Although these projected future worlds are often risible, they once again offer vivid proof that even in our absence, we will think we will still be shaping the future of the world, even when we no longer exist. Not once in the entire The Future is Wild series is the concept of humankind ever mentioned; it’s assumed, without even saying so, that in a future that starts five million years out, we no longer exist. The result of nuclear annihilation? Overpopulation? Pollution? A stray asteroid, causing a new ice age, and clouds of cosmic dust that circle the globe?
The reason is never given, but whatever it is, we’re gone – vanished as if we had never existed, while the world is populated by amalgamations that seem random hybrids of existing wildlife, more than anything else. But still, the arrogance of presumed human speciesism and human-centric thinking persists. We won’t be here, but yet, we’re seeing it, (or projecting it) for these programs – a future world in which we don’t exist. And paradoxically, because we can see it, the very presence of these images indirectly gives proof to our continued influence and control, even as it denies our presence.
Based on The Future is Wild, it would appear that human beings narcissistic pathology knows no bounds, and doesn’t even cease with our own end. We attempt to design the future and control the visions of the future world even as we destroy the environment and ourselves. We appear to be incapable of a pure conception of world that is not centered around people as a referent. We attempt to apply our scientific colonizing grid on the future through the use of language, taxonomy, and even the televisual conceptualization of a world in the distant future where no human beings exist. In this astounding program, we are treated to a veritable orgy of post-people narratives and yet these narratives all somehow relate back to people as their creators, taxonomers, and CGI artist/creators.
But one of the biggest pleasures of watching The Future is Wild is that it is like watching a nature documentary without any pesky omniscient narrator who constantly reminds us that people are destroying the earth and many animal species and ecosystems at a rapid and formidable pace. Setting the show firmly in years “after people,” is a brilliant move. By removing people from the apocalypse, the show removes human guilt and culpability. Thus, we can sit back and enjoy the “family friendly apocotainment” offered up by the makers of The Future is Wild.
Post-people entertainment and visions invariably force us to rethink our relationship to visions of nature and our endless reverence for the beauty of that which we destroy. We are surrounded with photographs, screensavers, paintings, documentaries, and endless photographs of the beauty of Nature. We ghoulishly display the images of that which we destroy: birds, animals, wildlife, wild flowers, mountains, forests, seascapes, and all the furry beasts such as the cute little polar bear cub – one of the few of its type born in captivity – which recently seemed omnipresent on television news broadcasts and the web.
Given our wholesale destruction of Nature and everything on the Earth, I can no longer view the nature images as simply “beautiful.” In fact, I have begun to see them as the dead remains, or relics of a pre-depeopled planet. Our violation of the planet knows no bounds. Each day we read about some new way we destroy the environment, and I can’t help but see these nature photographs and documentaries as totemic images of that which is about to be destroyed. It strikes me as rather pathological to carefully photograph and visualize that which we are methodically and systematically killing. Doesn’t that sound like the definition of “torture porn?”
This is what I began thinking recently when I was watching an ambient television program available only in hotel rooms called Amos. This program, which is supposed to be relaxing (buried on the pay per view tier as one of the free options), features an endless smorgasbord of perfect images of Nature: seascapes, flowers, sunsets, various animals in wildlife (particularly polar bears), endless images of the beauty of living things on earth that we are busy killing. It struck me as quite depraved in a way, to watch these fetish objects deadened by being captured and rendered as pretty, but dead wallpaper visuals; doubly bound to death by virtue of the fact that we actively pursue and assure their destruction in real life.
I used to quite enjoy nature documentaries, being brought up on Disney’s True-Life Adventures (ca. 1948-60), which featured happy animals living in bounty next to humans. As I have grown up, I find I can no longer watch nature documentaries. While the narratives may begin by describing the life cycle of animals in nature, or places such as the Amazon, every documentary inevitably comes to the section where it is explained that man is destroying the habitat and/or animal we are watching. As the most dangerous species, man can’t seem to stop destroying, but we still want to look at pretty pictures of nature and animals and flowers. Perhaps depeopled apocotainment narratives gesture toward our subconscious grudging admission of guilt as the destroyers of earth; they certainly give evidence that we are anxious to envision a world without people.
Many thanks to my kind and generous colleagues Mikita Brottman, David Sterritt, William Luhr, Christopher Sharrett, and especially Richard Grigg for reading this essay and offering helpful and brilliant revision strategies.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief of the journal Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011) and A Short History of Film (2008), both co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon; as well as Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (2003), and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity (1997).
Suggested further reading: Christopher Sharrett, “The Music Man in Retrospect”
Gilman, Sander L. (1995), Health and Illness: Images of Difference, Oxford: The Alden Press.
Hochman, Jhan (1998), Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory, Moscow: University of Idaho Press.
Holmes, Bob, (2006), “Imagine Earth Without People”, New Scientist, October 12.
Ingram, Annie Merrill and Ian Marshall, Daniel J. Philippon, Adam W. Sweeting, Eds. (2007) Coming into Contact: Explorations in Ecocritical Theory and Practice, Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Ingram, David (2004), Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.
Jeffers, Robinson (1940), “May-June, 1940,” The Saturday Review, August 10, p. 8.
Sarahnomics: Film. Science. Skepticism. (2009), “Life After People”.
Schiebinger, Londa (1993), Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science, Boston: Beacon Press.
Schuessler, Jennifer (2007), “Starting Over”, The New York Times Book Review, September 2.
Sharrett, Christopher (1993), “Introduction; Crisis Cinema,” Crisis Cinema: The Apocalyptic Idea in Postmodern Narrative Film, Ed. Christopher Sharrett, Washington, DC: Maisonneuve Press, pp. 1-9.
Sharrett, Christopher (1999), “Afterward: Sacrificial Violence in Postmodern Ideology,” Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Ideology, Ed. Christopher Sharrett, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, pp. 413 – 434.
Tucker, Neely (2008), “Depopulation Boom”, The Washington Post, March 8.
Weisman, Alan (2007), The World Without Us, New York: St Martin’s Press.
Wojcik, Daniel (1997), The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypticism in America, New York: NYU Press.