Thursday, January 24, 2008

On Life After People

Yesterday, I offered brief commentary on a show a co-worker was speaking about over lunch. Luckily, I had the opportunity to watch the encore presentation of that show last night. It's called Life After People, and aired on the History Channel. The two hour special details how, if all humans were to suddenly disappear, natural flora and fauna would adapt and repopulate and how human constructions would degrade and disappear. The show begins with the immediate effects of a human extinction, moving into the future in increments of approximately 25 years before ultimately winding up 10,000 years past the date of the last human beings.

Having seen the show, I don't retract my initial reaction, which is that it is a decidedly narcissistic undertaking. Narcissism doesn't overtly dominate the special, but it permeates the ideas it is founded upon and, at times, its presentation. This is doubtlessly unintentional, as this implicit, mostly unconscious human-centrism is unfortunately the foundation for a lot of our species’ thinking.

I'll preface this discussion with a disclaimer and an extended quote from hyperbolist extraordinaire Friedrich Nietzsche. Disclaimer first: I am in no way a bleeding-heart, human-hating hippie that wishes for the basis of this show to become a reality for the sake of the rest of nature, and I am in no way writing this with the intention of proving the show is not entertaining or worth watching. This is simply an exploration of a line of thought that was instigated by the show. I rather enjoyed watching it, and my writings here are merely the consideration of new, related avenues of thought. And now Nietzsche:

In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of "world history"--yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

This largely sums up the idea of the show. The premise is founded upon morbid curiosity. What would the world be like if we all disappeared? The question seems innocuous enough at first glance, but it is based upon the relatively egotistical (although true) claim that we dominate the earth to a large enough extent that our activities and accomplishments are actually planet-defining. It is nearly impossible to separate the "Earth" from the "Earth as affected by human activity." At its most basic, the show acts to remind us of how much power we wield over our home by illustrating how long and arduous a planetary recovery would be in our absence.

Though it could be easily argued that the overall message of the show would be impossible without its central device, it is still pretty drastic to be willing to entertain the eradication of oneself as the ultimate means of reaffirming how real and influential one is. While there is some discussion of the repopulation of plants and animals, the show mostly deals with how human structures will degrade without people around to maintain them. The mechanics of these sorts of breakdowns are certainly interesting, but the extent to which the show focuses on them makes it fairly inane. If no one is around, who the hell cares how long it will take for your house to fall down? Presumably, of all of the things in the Earth's natural environment that would drastically change in our absence, the longevity of our now-worthless buildings seems like the least interesting or essential to the history (and future) of the planet.

The emphasis on human architecture is the result of a somewhat pathetic undertone in the show, which is actually articulated at one point: "Can there be any hope that a permanent mark of our civilization will remain?" The agenda is thus revealed: the show isn't so much a celebration of the incredible natural phenomena and mechanics that contribute to the staying power of the Earth's ecosystem; it's a worried, desperate attempt at a gauge of our legacy.

The show somewhat redeems itself by being careful not lean too far towards either "purely hypothetical" or "inevitable," thereby avoiding a needless, haughty tone that makes the assumption that "no humans" is a largely unthinkable venture, but also avoiding falling into cliché doomsday trappings. But at its core, the show is based heavily on the all-to-human presupposition that human greatness matters to anything other than humans (read: it doesn’t). Now, I realize this isn’t necessarily the strongest argument as far as discrediting the show (if I were actively trying to discredit it), because the same underlying belief is present in many, many things humans undertake. In this way, the show can be used as an illustrative example of how this misconception is manifested in ways we don’t always consider at first glance. Nietzsche sums it up nicely:

One might invent such a fable [the one quoted above] and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. It is human, rather, and only its owner and producer give it such importance, as if the world pivoted around it.

The last sentence serves well to call out Life After People: the embedded notion that the world “revolves around” human activity is what allows looking at a hypothetical world without us to seem so novel and entertaining. A world without people seems alien and depressing, because people view themselves as the one thing that is central to the planet. This is why the producers of the show couldn’t even part with humanity when the whole premise was the absence of it: the show remained focused on how long our achievements would remain standing, rather than on how the planet would flourish despite them. Even many of the discussions of animal adaptation and repopulation are colored through humanity’s remaining influence, focusing on how these creatures might utilize the buildings and creations we left behind. The show is really rather paradoxical: even when we no longer exist, we can’t help but think of how awesome we were when we did. And for that reason, were an alien to land somewhere on the planet, tune in to cable television, and watch Life After People, it would probably find its subtle self-importance laughable and maybe even a little sad.

The show concludes with the narrator stating: "There was life before people. There will be life after people," as if such a statement was somehow profound, or at the very least, not painfully obvious. It serves as a fitting end cap for the mentality the show represents. Sure, people are great.

But only to people.

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