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After We're Gone

Illustration by Scott Bakal

Not long ago, I was asked to stand before a camera at Niagara Falls and speculate about what might happen there if humans suddenly vanished from the earth. The occasion was the History Channel show called Life After People, which uses spectacular computer graphics to show how the world would go to pieces -- awesomely -- if we up and disappeared. I hadn't seen the show, but when the producer called I got the point at once.

"Oh, yeah, the post-human sublime," I told him. "That meme is everywhere."

I didn't know the half of it. Life After People, I was told, is one of the most popular shows on the History Channel, along with Ice Road Truckers and Modern Marvels. Our roads and bridges and dams fascinate us, whether serving our needs or succumbing to ruin. The producer directed me to online clips, and I spent an afternoon gripped by footage of buildings caving in, bridges falling down, highways eroding to dust. Some episodes showed our pernicious influence outlasting us: landfills leaking toxic goo, untended nuclear reactors irradiating wildlife. But mostly the program implied that eventually, in a world without people, the earth would regain its balance.

I wasn't sure I could get on board. Yes, the post-human world is popular. Alan Weisman's The World Without Us was a best-seller; Alexis Rockman's post-apocalyptic cityscapes are hit paintings. And people flock to film's post-human landscapes, from the drowned Statue of Liberty in Artificial Intelligence to the blasted highways of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

There's a word for all this: sublime. The artistic term describes the awe we feel for things larger than ourselves. In the past, the natural world was sublime: mountains, waterfalls, the ocean, and the stars gave people a sense of insignificance in relation to the vasty universe. But we have lost the faculty to be so diminished. We move mountains and harness rivers. We have unleashed the power of the atom, unraveled the secrets of our genome, and unbalanced the planet's climate. What on this puny rock could be bigger than we are? Yet our seeming omnipotence does not satisfy us. We still yearn to see the natural world as supreme, but to do it we have to exterminate ourselves.

I think the sublime also accounts for the current vogue for ruins, especially the decaying industrial wreckage of the Rust Belt. The inevitable hand-wringing about "ruin porn" misses the point: ruins are an age-old route to the sublime. "Everything dissolves, everything perishes, everything passes, only time goes on," wrote Diderot.

But if the ruin is a memento mori, how is it changed when it evokes the fleetingness of not just one human life or empire but the whole human race? Is this the greatest imaginable humility in the face of the implacable march of time? Or is it an easy out for a species unwilling to face up to its own ruinous reach? This is what bugged me about the post-human meme. It seemed to yield a kind of hopelessness I associate with extremists -- Earth First! and biblical literalists -- who preach that the world will one day be cleansed of mere mankind. For both, the extirpation of earthly humanity is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Neither worldview gives us much reason to improve our special connection to this planet. We are, after all, only passing through.

Considered in that light, the "life after people" fantasy seemed despair-inducing, an excuse for turning away just as we should be focusing in. But I was overthinking things.

"Are there any well-known monuments above Niagara that could get swept over the Falls?" one of the show's writers called to ask. And then I saw it: fun was the factor I had forgotten. Imagining the monster in the closet makes us appreciate the cozy bed.

I did the show. Big freighters crashed over the brink, power plants collapsed, and the Falls eroded into a series of piddling rapids. I stood in a light rain, trying to sound as if I knew something about geology. The show -- though it scared my nephews -- was not despairing. Look at the world, it urged us. Human things are not all that matters. Grass matters. Falling water matters. They would matter if we were gone. In forcing us to imagine our own absence, it was calling out for presence, goading us to take up once more a right relationship to a world that must remain, for the foreseeable future, saddled with us.

image of Ginger Strand
Ginger Strand is the author of a novel, Flight, and two books of nonfiction: Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies and Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate. She writes for a variety of magazines, including Harper’s, Wired,... READ MORE >
Thank you for the excellent post. Might I observe that there is at least one more thing over which humans have yet to assert control - humanity. The progression of humanity, from its origins in more-or-less balance with its ecosystem, through the development of ever larger and more complex societies, to the current global conflict with the ecosystem (a condition popularly regarded as 'civilisation') has been a process of evolution, not design. Although frequently influenced by individuals and groups, that process has in no way been a controlled one. Control would require a level of forethought and planning and an agreed goal, all of which are sadly lacking from the current reality. If we are to progress much further as an intelligent species we must re-discover humility; understand that our achievements are only RELATIVELY grand, in our own perspective; and judging them in absolute terms is irrelevant. Relative to all that there is to know, I suspect that we have only just begun to learn how to learn. Absent mastery over our own global behaviour, the intelligence we so highly regard as uniquely ours, may well become just another failed evolutionary 'experiment'. I for one, would see that as a terrible and tragic outcome.
I find the mindset behind “After We’re Gone” to be both troubling and intellectually confused. The piece centers on your participation in a program which “implied that eventually, in a world without people, the earth would regain its balance.” In rationalizing what you say “bugged me about this post-human meme,” you bring us to the following conclusion: “Human beings are not all that matters,” and forcing us to imagine the world without us was “goading us to take up once more a right relationship to” the world. A nice sentiment. But I found the road you took to get there tortured and infuriating. Though I have never considered myself to be a “member” of Earth First!, I have been peripherally involved with that movement and have great respect for their sympathies if not all of their methods. Without the active “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth” involvement those folks have given to this world over the decades, humankind’s defense of the earth would be even more compromised than it is today. Yet you liken Earth First! to biblical literalists, accusing them of hopelessness and of failing to offer “much reason to improve our special connection to this planet.” Though I do not know you personally, I am confident that most EarthFirster!ers have a closer connection to this planet than you do. And as a group, no organization has been more uncompromising than EF! in trying to improve life on this planet. Nor are the “extreme” efforts they have made on behalf of Mother Earth at all consistent with hopelessness. If you are justified in comparing EF! to the post-apocalyptic radical right, then I am at least as justified in comparing you to the rapist who believes he deserves parole because he wants to improve his interpersonal relationships (just as you say you need to improve your relationship to the earth). In an attempt to justify your criticism of EF!, you explain the EF! mindset by saying that they believe “we are, after all, only passing through.” And yet in the paragraph immediately before that, you (in an attempt to portray your own actions as “sublime”) affirm that “everything passes, only time goes on.” Apparently it is sublime only if you do it. I had been making plans to purchase a NRDC charitable gift annuity. But failing an apology from both the author and the editors who chose to make this author’s spiteful (or at best confused) comments the climax of their magazine, that plan is being abandoned.
My word Jeff Maurer the authors' response was simply an interpretation of how she thought the world might be if humans ceased to exist from the planet. There was neither a good nor bad hypothesis to her belief, merely a reasonably pragmatic speculation as to what would most likely occur to humanities constructs, in her mind and knowledge base, regardless of how they would affect the present environment et al. From reading your comment to the author you came across as rather emotive and though you say that you are only on the fringe of the Earth First movement perhaps it would be good to finally admit to yourself that you truly are one of them. This is not a bad thing nor is it a good thing, this simply is; and for the most part more power to you and yours if you can bring to public consciousness the importance for all about the protection of the environment we call our own and both its' direct/subtle effect upon this tiny world we call home. Just simply be honest with yourself though Jeff, you truly had no plans for an annuity considering you did a 360 on simply one article. Anyone with any true desire to give an annuity would have given further balanced observation to the articles produced before cutting things off. Best, David
It still seems to me that being called a hopeless extremist who offers humanity little reason to improve it's special connection to this planet really is "fightin' words" - especially when applied to a group of people whom I have found to maintain relatively close ties with Mother Earth. If it was really the author's intention to merely interpret how she thought the world might be if humans ceased to exist, then why the attack on one of the world's most visible and most effective pro-environment movements? She could have achieved the former without the latter. Her failure to apologize for that attack, and NRDC's refusal to make any apology for that attack places her and the NRDC within the category of "environmentalists" who seek to preserve their own status-quo by compromising their supposed environmentalist values AND attacking those who do not advocate such compromises. This makes it apparent that the NRDC is NOT the kind of organization I wish to support. I am not saying there is no place for a group like the NRDC within the environmental movement (despite the author's and NRDC's apparent feeling that there is no place for EF!). It is just that with their position now clarified in my mind, I have changed my plans to purchase a NRDC annuity. w/r to your arrogant assurance to me that I had no such plans: stick it! I did. And it is not merely this one editorial that changed those plans. The author and NRDC could have apologized for their portrayal of EF! They have chosen not to. So it is THAT choice, and the morality behind that choice that changed the plans I really did have despite your presumption that you know more about me than I do. And after calling me dishonest with myself, you offer me your best? Ok. My best to you as well.